Thursday, March 10, 2016

"99 Homes" and the Housing Crisis

Ramin Bahrani is known for his films about the impoverished and marginalized, including a food cart worker in "Man Push Cart," street kids in "Chop Shop," and a taxi driver in "Goodbye Solo."  In "99 Homes," the main characters are Caucasian and working class, played by familiar actors and actresses.  However, in the depths of the financial crisis, the characters have been pushed to the brink, and face losing everything.  In short, they're in familiar territory for a Bahrani film.

There hasn't been much media directly looking at the effects of Great Recession on the American psyche, probably because the fallout is still ongoing.  I think that's why "99 Homes" strikes such a nerve, because it reflects an economic reality that too many have been downplaying or outright ignoring.  We don't ask what happens after people lose their homes to foreclosure because it's too terrible to think about.  We don't consider the impact on neighborhoods and communities, on families and children.  Ramin Bahrani, however, is very good at asking these kinds of questions, and making movies that get viewers to care about the answers.

"99 Homes" follows the plight of the Nash family, young father Dennis (Andrew Garfield), his son Connor (Noah Lomax), and Dennis's widowed mother Lynn (Laura Dern), as they lose the battle to save their home from foreclosure.  The Nashes are evicted, in a tense, emotional scene by a local realtor, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), and the police.  Carver has made a business of handling foreclosures and evictions, and when Dennis goes to confront him over some stolen tools, he offers the young man a badly needed job working on other foreclosed properties.  This leads to Dennis contemplating a career in handling foreclosures himself.

I think that some filmmakers could use the reminder that great human drama doesn't require a massive budget, an epic story, or larger-than-life characters in fancy locales.  The most tense and dramatic scenes in "99 Homes" happen in ordinary suburban homes, on front lawns, on sidewalks, and the connecting streets.  However, the stakes are very high for construction worker Dennis Nash - his family home, his family's future and livelihood, and his own pride.  It's what drives him to strike his Faustian bargain with the Great Recession-era version of the Devil, Rick Carver.  And what a Devil.  Callous, amoral, infinitely greedy, and willing to swindle anyone, there's no doubt that Rick Carver is meant to stand in for all the agents of financial impropriety that created the 2008 housing crisis and left people like Dennis Nash in the lurch.

Michael Shannon has had a good run of solid character roles in the past few years, and I expect that Rick Carver is going to be one of the performances that we remember him for.  There's no doubt that Carver is a terrible person, and yet he's got such a silver tongue, always ready to make a better offer or give valuable advice.  It's fascinating to watch him work, and fun to spend time with him.  He's got a great monologue where he explains, plainly, how he came to be the shark that he is, and makes a strong case for his own villainy.  Poor Dennis hardly stands a chance.

And I have to say that I'm so relieved to se Andrew Garfield still turning in work this strong after his misadventures in superherodom.  His desperation is so palpable in every frame, in every verbal exchange.  The battle for his soul follows the usual arc, but it's easy to become invested because it's easy to care about Dennis.  And thank goodness that Bahrani didn't take the easy way out - the film wouldn't be nearly so effective if there weren't a real cost to Dennis's bad choices, and doing the right thing wasn't so hard.

I worry about the future of Ramin Bahrani films, about how they'll be conceived,executed, distributed,  bought and sold in the years to come.  "99 Homes" was made for a scant $8 million and lost money - barely anyone saw it, and unless it gets into the awards conversation, it'll probably end up falling through the cracks the way so many of his characters do.  That seems oddly fitting, but at the same time, not good if we want to see more of this director's films.  And I do want to see more, and other films like them.


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