I’ve always felt that the films of Ramin Bahrani have ably mixed the indie with the mainstream in interesting ways, and that’s never been more so than with 99 Homes, a drama that pulsates with unexpected tension. In setting the movie in 2008, amidst the backdrop of the housing market crash, Bahrani has crafted something full of high stakes, even if it’s hardly a thriller or anything of the like. Watching someone try and stave off being kicked out of their house is dramatic enough. Bahrani succumbs to cliches here and there, but by and large he’s made his most successfully flick yet, due in part to the strong performances of Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon. Garfield tries a very different sort of character on for size here, while Shannon gets to play around with a unique take on the kind of role he’s done before. It works far better than I was expecting, even if some issues like the score (more on that later) and the ending prevent 99 Homes from being something special. As it stands now, this is probably a slight cut below where it needs to be for awards consideration, but you never know with that sort of thing. The film has taken a long time on the festival circuit and finally is hitting theaters not as a troubled project like the long lead would suggest but instead as a solid drama brimming with ethical questions, fights for dignity, and frustration with the system. 99 Homes pulls you in early and almost never lets go.
As mentioned, the movie is set in Florida during the 2008 collapse, which was a catastrophe for the housing and real estate market. When we meet Dennis Nash (Garfield), he’s getting ready for a court hearing about the eviction notice on his home. Dennis is underwater on his mortgage and the bank is attempting to foreclose on the property he grew up in and now shares with his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and son Connor (Noah Lomax). They lose the case and think they have 30 days, but the next morning police officers and real estate broker Rick Carver (Shannon) show up to evict them. Dennis rages against the machine, but it’s a losing battle and soon their worldly possessions are on the lawn, then in his pickup, then in a crummy hotel room. A laborer by trade, business has been bad, but when Dennis realizes that he’s missing tools he’d need to try and get work, he confronts Rick’s employees and winds up being given a job offer instead. Initially just a handyman of sorts, the shady Rick takes a liking to Dennis, and when the latter asks to keep working for him in order to buy back his house, the former trains him in the art of more or less buying houses out from under the people living in them. Ethical and moral questions abound, but Dennis has an almost laser focus on getting his home back. Things fall apart a bit at the end of 99 Homes, but right up until the climax, it’s fairly captivating.
Removed from the tights of the web slinging superhero he played in The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Andrew Garfield gets to show some welcome range. He was always a better Peter Parker than Spidey to me, and here Garfield is allowed to be an intense young father, swayed by money and a burning desire to not be a failure. He doesn’t always make Dennis a likable character, but it’s always one you want to follow. The same goes for Michael Shannon in the opposite direction, as he’s close to a villain, but one with depth and a rationale that’s hard to ignore. Try as you might to hate him, Shannon never makes Rick a sniveling bad guy. I’d even argue that he’s not in the flick enough, as he’s best in show, without question. Laura Dern is solid but not given nearly enough to do, while young Noah Lomax is fine in an undemanding role. Supporting players include Clancy Brown, J.D. Evermore, Tim Guinee, and more, but it’s pretty much the Garfield and Shannon show here.
Co-writer/director Ramin Bahrani was a great admirer of Roger Ebert (the film is dedicated to him, in fact), and here he’s made something that would likely have appealed in a big way to the late critic. The stakes are high, the characters are realistic, and there’s a definite sense of time and place. Honestly, had Bahrani and his co-writers Bahareh Azimi and Amir Naderi not succumbed to melodrama and a lack of believability in the final moments, I likely would have gone a half star higher in this review. That botching of the conclusion, as well as a score by Antony Partos and Matteo Zingales that’s too over the top (every scene sounds like it’s from a B movie thriller) keeps this from being great. Bahrani does give this a gritty visual aesthetic though, courtesy of cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, and that works in a big way. It’s almost documentary like.
Overall, this is just shy of Oscar worthy in any way, but if 99 Homes got Shannon a Best Supporting Actor push, I’d hardly complain. This is an occasionally flawed but never boring drama that’s very solid and really the sort of thing we don’t get in theaters nearly enough. A movie for adults in terms of its lack of pandering, I found myself moved here and there by its intense depiction of losing your home and the lack of dignity in the process. This is a film that’s not always easy to watch, but it’s one that’s well worth the effort. 99 Homes is a very good flick that’s just shy of being a great one…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!