We’re amid a phase in Ramin Bahrani’s filmmaking career and it’s a subtle but nevertheless exciting shift from where he was ten years ago. With Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo, the primary characters range from a Pakistani pushcart driver, a Latino orphan, and a Senegalese cab driver. They were films about the immigrant experience, about the transition in operating in a society that deemed them as outsiders. His next film, 2012’s critically misunderstood and exceptional At Any Price did not involve this sort of outsider experience. Set on Iowa farmland, the film was a vivid study of American decay whereby the hegemonic elite sought to maintain sovereignty through the marginalization of characters like those found in his earlier triptych of films.
Bahrani’s new film, 99 Homes, carries on with this study of the social elite by investigating the housing market. It’s a case study that illustrates the predatory capitalist’s perspective, whereby a real-estate shark repossesses foreclosed homes with startling efficiency. If Bahrani’s initial triad of films was a trilogy of the 99%, then 99 Homes is the second film in a trilogy of the 1%.
There’s more money to be made in taking people out of homes than putting them in, as Florida real estate kingpin Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) so flagrantly puts it. Sell people on the American Dream, give them a mortgage they cannot afford, and reap the benefits. It’s part of Carver’s schedule to see to the foreclosure and removal of occupants from his homes, whereby he and his cadre of drab laborers remove occupants’ possessions and kick them to the curb. At the start of the film Carver discovers the suicide of an occupant, where his immediate reaction is not remorse but aggravation; he’s going to be late to his next appointment.
We then cut to Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a young father and handyman who supports his son and mother (Laura Dern) through his unsteady income. A salt-of-the-Earth type, he’s a character of Steinbeckian qualities whose moral compass seems firmly set. His priorities are stringently familial. But as he struggles to make ends meet we find him at the local courthouse, failing to make payment on his home, it’s to be seized. Misunderstanding the judge’s verdict – believing to have 30 days – he finds the Florida sheriff and Rick Carver at his doorstep the next day.
Nash’s hard-working moralism is set against Carver’s cutthroat politics as Carver offers Nash a job. From here the film echoes much of its previous horrors, as Nash is tasked with removing occupants. He’s provided a handsome wage and persuaded by Carver’s gelid cruelty to continue on with the barely legal and morally dubious work, which includes stealing and reselling appliances from vacated homes. Bahrani is at his most formally commanding here, as he utilizes Nash’s preceding plights and emphasizes the broad and far-reaching affects of predatory capitalism - the judge at the opening of the film suggests that he sees Nash’s case on a daily basis and Bahrani, painfully, reaffirms that notion. And it’s here where Bahrani’s use of Florida locales resonates most effectively: from an elderly man’s removal from his home to a child translating Nash’s removal notice to his Spanish-speaking mother, Bahrani covers a broad and vivid spectrum of the exploited and disenfranchised.
99 Homes never does succumb to the nihilism of say, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, and that may actually operate against it in its final act. It’s key to note that Bahrani never expressly vilifies Carver’s capitalistic ambitions; in many ways Bahrani and Shannon emphasize that the character utilizes a flawed and rigged system to his advantage. But as the film reaches its conclusion, we see Bahrani attempt to define the gray zone in which Carver operates, which rattles the delicate balance that he achieved for most of the film. The film’s conclusion, an ominous and bold attempt to show the drowning effects of a burst housing bubble, relies on a degree of moralism that never quite jibes with the rest of the picture. Still, like many of Bahrani’s films, the ending presents its own set of moral and social questions that have left me reeling well after my viewing.