Michael Shannon is phenomenal in this gripping real estate thriller.
How far would you go to keep a roof over your family's head? That's the question posed by 99 Homes, the blistering new moral melodrama from writer-director Ramin Bahrani. Set in Orlando, Florida during the height of the 2010 foreclosure crisis, it is perhaps the most compelling film yet made about the global economic downturn and the everyday people whose lives it tore apart. Forget serial killers wielding machetes. This is a horror movie for the modern age.
Trading his spandex and web-shooters for a toolbox and blue collar, Amazing Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield plays protagonist Dennis Nash, a construction worker and single parent forced to move his family into a motel after they're thrown out of their home. Adding insult to injury, the only work Nash is able to find is as a day labourer for Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the same ruthless real estate broker who evicted him in the first place. But Carver soon sees potential in the desperate young father and invites him to take a greater role in his business. But what will it take for Nash to sell his soul?
99 Homes is Bahrani's fifth feature effort, although it's the first to receive a significant release here in Australia. Still, those who have seen his earlier work, including Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo and At Any Price, will recognise his signature motifs. He's an unapologetically earnest filmmaker with a strong social conscience, taking major issues that dominate headlines and using them as a basis for intimate human stories. During the film's numerous eviction scenes, he employs handheld cameras and a low, pulsating score, creating an atmosphere of overwhelming helplessness. Watching Carver throw Nash and his family out of their home will likely leave viewers feeling nauseous – although not half as nauseous as they'll feel later in the film, when Nash begins evicting families on Carver's behalf.
After a few years languishing in superhero limbo, Garfield recaptures the stellar dramatic form seen in The Social Network and Never Let Me Go. Every compromise Nash considers the actor makes us understand, forcing us to ponder what we'd do in the same situation. Laura Dern is likewise strong in the admittedly thankless role as Nash's kind-hearted mother. Both, however, are overshadowed by Shannon. With the same simmering intensity he brought to Take Shelter and Boardwalk Empire, the Oscar-nominated actor is captivating whenever he's on screen. A callous big screen capitalist in the vein of Gordon Gecko, Carver is at once repellent and uncomfortably persuasive – characteristics best exemplified in a monologue midway through the film in which the e-cig smoking realtor gives us a glimpse into what drives him while raining rhetorical fire down on everyone from federal regulators to homeowners themselves. It is, quite simply, one of the best written, best acted scenes you'll see in a cinema this year.
That's not to say that Bahrani's screenplay isn't also without its weak points. Nuance isn't exactly his strong suit, and there are stretches of the film that feel rather histrionic. More frustrating is the ending, in which the writer-director strips away any sense of moral ambiguity in favour of a simpler, less interesting conflict between right and wrong. Yet even in the moments where the narrative falters, the weight and sincerity of Bahrani's intention are enough to carry you through. That, along with the phenomenal work of one of the finest actors working today.