The number of properties referred to in the title of Ramin Bahrani’s fifth feature may have a literal narrative significance, but it must also refer to the population percentage routinely branded as the victims of Occupy-era economic downturn. The perils of illegally gained One Percent privilege make for engrossing, high-stakes viewing in “99 Homes,” which sees Andrew Garfield’s blue-collared Florida everyman enter a Faustian pact with Michael Shannon’s white-blazered real-estate shark. Following the lead of 2012’s underrated “At Any Price” in matching the socially conscious topicality of Bahrani’s early films to the demands of broader-brush melodrama, this dynamically acted, unapologetically contrived pic reps the filmmaker’s best chance to date of connecting with a wider audience — one likely to share the helmer’s bristling anger over corruptly maintained class divides in modern-day America.
Just as Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” — a film that took a mildly more sanguine view of the past decade’s far-reaching financial crisis — made its viewers endure repeated scenes of humiliating personal disenfranchisement at the hands of corporate America, so does “99 Homes.” Where George Clooney’s professional downsizer spent much of Reitman’s film coolly relieving people of their jobs, here it’s an unblinking Shannon paying house calls to deliver even worse news to hard-up Orlando residents: that their homes have been foreclosed, and that they have mere minutes to pack their things and find new lodgings. It’s a scenario we’ve winced through in other cinematic portraits of down-at-heel America, though rarely has it been quite so cruelly presented. The very first image in the film is of the blood-sprayed bathroom wall of one evictee who preferred to take his life rather than exit his property.
As hardened, duplicitous real-estate broker Rick Carver, Shannon grants such horrors little more than a disinterested glance before taking a drag on his e-cigarette and moving on to the next victim. The script, co-written by Bahrani and veteran Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi from a story by Bahareh Azimi, makes no attempt to present Carver as anything but a pale-suited Satan from the get-go. Still, he’s rather an admirable villain in one sense: A wholly self-made property baron who has clawed his way up from working-class roots by gaming the government at every available opportunity, Carver reasons that the American Dream does not come to those who wait.
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When sent to evict single father Dennis Nash (Garfield) from his lifelong family home, Carver recognizes similar class-scaling potential in the young man’s enterprising defiance. An unemployed construction worker willing to do anything to get his preteen son Connor (Noah Lomax) and weathered, resilient mom Lynn (Laura Dern, currently the go-to actress for weathered, resilient moms) out of a rough downtown motel heavily populated with other foreclosed families, Nash reluctantly accepts Carver’s offer of piecemeal employment, cleaning and repairing houses recently seized by his unlikely new benefactor.
It isn’t long before Carver has adopted Nash as a full-time protege, training him in eviction protocol and letting him in on the dirty secrets of his success: He generates substantial extra income by removing key fittings and appliances from abandoned houses and charging the government for their replacement. Despite Carver’s instincts, Nash isn’t to the manner born, repeatedly balking at the job’s more confrontational duties — but the lure of his rapidly increasing income, and the imminent return of his house, ultimately outweigh his moral reservations.
Nash’s quandary, then, reflects Bahrani’s view of America’s social problem. It’s not that financial recovery is impossible, the film posits, but that it must come at the direct inverse cost to another party, leading to an economy built entirely around the individual. It’s not a subtle argument, and its dramatization is often schematic: At one point, Nash is required to oversee an eviction that mirrors his own family’s earlier ordeal almost beat for beat. But Bahrani’s rhetoric is undeniably rousing, and not without compelling supplementary specifics. The legal and administrative loopholes that enable Carver’s profitable schemes and the mass displacement of respectable home-owners are articulated here in some detail, though the film’s principal approach is emotional rather than analytical. Carver himself would not approve: “Don’t get emotional about real estate,” he advises Nash, quite reasonably, though his motivations are still entirely material. Where the sentimental would argue that houses are worth only the lives inside them, Carver takes a different tack: “They’re boxes. Big boxes, small boxes. What matters is how many you’ve got.”
Like the devil that gets all the best tunes, it’s Shannon — ideally cast in a role that fully capitalizes on his dauntless stare and imposing, almost-handsome physicality — who gets the choice lines here, though his half-snarling, half-purring delivery lends a certain snap even to clunkier ones. (Coming from his lips, the words “I see green skies ahead” seem a genuinely ominous mission statement.) It’s a pleasure, meanwhile, to see Garfield onscreen, unencumbered by a lycra Spidey-suit, for the first time since his 2010 breakthrough in “The Social Network.” Always good at deeply internalized anguish and barely masked vulnerability, he convincingly navigates his character through some tricky psychological transitions, maintaining sympathy and credibility even in the film’s ramped-up (and somewhat trumped-up) thriller finale. Ensemble work is excellent across the board, with those cast as the various evictees contributing a particularly vivid gallery of one-scene performances, ranging in tone from white-hot fury to silent desolation.
On the technical front, the throbbing percussion-and-electronica score by Anthony Partos and Matteo Zingales stands out as Bahrani’s most substantial miscalculation. Oddly dated and loudly present in nearly every scene, the music conveys bleak, urgent anxiety from the outset, leaving the film little room for tonal maneuvering. The sonic underlining also seems unnecessary with the actors already doing such a dexterous job of delivering Bahrani’s stinging, barely submerged subtext.
Serving as his own editor, as he did on his first three films, Bahrani keeps the narrative at a rolling boil throughout; d.p. Bobby Bukowski’s blunt, unfussy digital compositions, which often allow direct light sources to overwhelm the frame, also effectively contribute to the sense of a film with little time for the luxury of beauty. The most invaluable below-the-line contribution, meanwhile, comes from production designer Alex DiGerlando, who furnishes the film’s broad range of Floridian boxes — big and small, flashy and fetid — with a wealth of subliminal personal and social history, even as they stand empty.