By Jacob Mertens.
Ramin Bahrani—known in the indie festival circuit for his subtle, observational features Man Push Cart (2005), Chop Shop (2007), and Goodbye Solo (2008)—enters the current festival year with a film that pushes past the scope of the individual and toward grand meaning. Specifically, he seizes on the recent housing crises in the US as subject material, fashioning a story that takes on the moralistic dilemma of a mob film. In 99 Homes, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a construction worker struggling to find consistent employ, faces an eviction from his family home after failing to pay on a sub-prime mortgage loan. In the meantime, real estate and foreclosure magnate Mike Carver (Michael Shannon) forces Nash out with alarming efficacy in order to put the property back on sale. After moving into a low-rent motel with his mother and son (sharing the fate of several other unfortunate families), Nash scuttles about town looking for work and, as fate would have it, gets a job with the very man who threw him out to begin with. From the outset of this early, tenuous set-up, Nash ingratiates himself as someone willing to do anything to get back what he lost. Carver then proceeds to test the limits of that stubborn will, slowly pulling Nash into a corrupt business that drags him away from the family he had worked to protect.
If the story sounds vaguely familiar, it should. After all, the film plays on perennial crime genre tropes that have been in circulation for ages. One modern comparison could be Scorcese’s Goodfellas (1990), in which the petty criminal Henry Hill escapes his economic straits by ascending the ranks of a mob hierarchy. Ultimately, he abandons his family and friends for the rush of power and wealth, and finds ruin not just in a monstrous cocaine addiction but in the karmic retribution that comes as a prerequisite for the crime film itself. Indeed, as many readers will know, the Hayes Code initially forced such films to punish their criminals with a downfall (for early examples, think Little Caesar (1931) or Scarface (1932)), a narrative precept that lead to conventions still around today. Meanwhile, with the maturation of the genre, a greater emphasis on themes of isolation and the corruption of family have taken hold, perhaps best crystallized in the ending sequence of The Godfather (1972) in which Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) watches Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) disappear behind a closed door, subsumed forever into the black hole of a Mafioso underworld.
Of course, if 99 Homes was simply a mob film front to back, it would need to contend with the likes of Goodfellas or The Godfather and it would inevitably fall short. After all, even brilliant modern editions to the genre, like Cronenberg’s dual Mortensen films A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), pale under the weight of cinematic history. Moreover, the complicated cross sections between underhanded syndicates and their governmental pursuers overshadow the petty thievery of Carver’s real estate interests. A distinction, however, lies in Bahrani’s commentary on the current state of the American “dream”—of families seeking honest, blue-collar jobs and a roof over their heads—challenged by the endemic inequality of a country’s capitalist, dog eat dog doctrine. Here the roles have been reversed from the typical mob narrative structure, and instead of a governmental agency hounding the mob at their heels, we find the government in the dubious role of an enabler (or, at the very least, a system far too incompetent to mete out justice). The coup de grâce of 99 Homes has nothing to do with an outside moral authority ready to reinforce the cosmic principles of law and order. Instead, Bahrani creates an effectively lawless world in which Nash’s innate moral compass stands as the only obstacle between right and wrong, a dynamic that bears the regretful mark of real world accuracy.
By embracing these modern concerns, Bahrani takes a familiar story and makes it feel palpable. When the audience watches Nash take over Carver’s role in an eviction, nearly breaking into tears as he foists a family from their property, we can see a man not only in the midst of a profound conflict but one that feels steeped in reality. Then, when Nash wanders through his new home bought from the labor of back alley crimes (for example, stealing the air conditioning units from Carver’s properties while Carver charges the government for their replacements), his transition into a soulless goon feels all the more tragic. The director then contrasts this character with Carver, who remains a constant throughout: moving through the film like a shark on the scent for blood, uttering lines like “don’t sentimentalize property” with the nonchalance of a man who has resolved himself to the sterile comforts of indecency long ago. Brought to life with respectively gritty and sensitive turns by Shannon and Garfield, these characters, who normally would have little in common, bond over a determination to look out for their own while the lure of white collar crime beckons like a siren song.
99 Homes has no real external conflict driving its protagonist to the gallows, but nevertheless once Nash takes a step too far the fates intervene all the same and he, like many cinematic criminals before him, brings his own rope for the hanging. Interestingly though, as the final moments of 99 Homes draw close, one cannot help but feel that Carver will make it through this karmic cycle untouched. The hero falls but the villain remains—a crime parable befitting the times.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.