TV news famously tends to adopt an editorial stance of “if it bleeds, it leads”. Last year’s Nightcrawler took a look at the dark side of what that kind of selection pressure might lead to, but it may be more important to notice what it leaves behind. As the news spends more time on all the lurid, lizard-brain stories, it spends less time on issues of real substance and long-term import. They don’t leap out at us the way more sensational fare does, even though it’s a lot more important for us to pay attention to them.
Ramin Bahrani has a great talent for taking these drier issues and bringing them vividly to life. Three years ago he tackled the dark side of modern agribusiness in At Any Price. And now, with co-writer Amir Naderi, he addresses the wave of foreclosures that followed the housing crash of 2008 in 99 Homes.
The story is set two years into the crisis. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a contractor in Florida, but housing development has busted and he can’t find work. It’s harder still, since he’d taken a home equity loan on the house where he lives with his mom, Lynn (Laura Dern), and son, Connor (Noah Lomax). It’s the house he grew up in, and where he wanted Connor to grow up. And when his arguments fail to sway a judge whose courtroom runs like an assembly line, it’s the house he finds himself tossed out of, repossessed by the bank, and managed by real estate broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon).
Dennis doesn’t give up easily. After checking his family into a motel filled with people in similar situations, he chases Rick down and finds the last thing he expected: a job. Another family on the verge of eviction stopped up their sewer line and fled, and Rick needs a contractor willing to get his hands dirty cleaning up the mess.
It’s not the last crappy job Rick has either; he takes Dennis under his wing, showing him all the tricks of his trade. There are legal ones — like convincing families to take a cash payoff to quit their stake before the coming foreclosure — and less-than-legal ones — like stealing major appliances from shuttered houses to get Fannie Mae to pay Rick’s company to replace them. And, sooner or later, Dennis will be on the other side of the door, standing with the local police as they serve an eviction on some other family.
Bahrani takes us from house to house, showing how many different families the housing crisis affects, and how each responds in their own way. Some accept their fate quietly; others rage. Some resort to theft to stay in their homes. Some get destructive, to spite the banks before they leave. Some lash out in violence. Nobody is happy.
And, in one of the most striking scenes in the film, that’s true of Rick just as much as anybody else. Shannon is always wonderful at imbuing his characters with brooding, but textured menace. Rick isn’t a demon, deriving joy as he inflicts pain and misery on the people around him. As he points out, people go into real estate wanting to put people into homes, not to take them out. But when the storm came, he found himself near the surface; if he needed to push someone else down so he could stay afloat, that’s what he had to do. And if Dennis’ way back into his family home means throwing someone else out of theirs, so be it.
Bahrani excels at putting agonizingly human faces on these otherwise impersonal tragedies. Unfortunately he tends to leave out the necessary step back to see the larger picture. It’s true that Rick is himself a victim who has turned victimizer in order to survive, caught up as he is in a zero-sum worldview of fixed, scarce resources. Bahrani trusts in his audience to see that assumption and question it for themselves.
I’m less trusting. This is, after all, a nation where one of the two major political parties lives almost entirely on exactly such mean-spirited, xenophobic populism. “Fear and despair!” they command: “There is only so much to go around, and if one of Them gets it, they must take it from you!” They thrive precisely because their supporters have been convinced to jealously protect what they have, and to fear the Other. Half the country believes in the exact same kernel of despair that leads Dennis down the same road Rick has already been.
And while 99 Homes may suggest the moral rectitude of sacrificing self-interest in the name of greater, more worthy ideals like fair play and a square deal, it never quite gets around to disabusing these people of this poisonous assumption. It may be more honorable to play the hand you’re dealt instead of stealing another player’s cards, but it’s more hopeful to realize that the game can be cooperative. That “the greater good” can be less about reshuffling the goods and more about making all the goods greater.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.