99 Homes (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

99 Homes (2015)

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Dennis Nash is one of many Americans whose home is taken away from him in the '08 Recession.  But a moment of rage leads to a surprise opportunity from Rick Carver, the man who took his home.  Ramin Bahrani directs 99 Homes, written by Bahrani and Amir Naderi, and stars Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield.

Triple word score

"What official statement is going to encapsulate the tragic absurdity of this fucked up situation?"

Listen to the words, look at Michael Shannon's face and body language, and ask this question - just what makes Rick Carver (Shannon) go through this time and again?  He sounds annoyed and tells the officer on duty to stop wasting his time after dropping that bombshell of dialogue.  But when we first see Rick he's staring, almost vacantly, at a man who just committed suicide in his pristine home.  Director Ramin Bahrani's camera floats through the bathroom with the grace of an angry god, settling on Shannon as he looks speechless at the homeowner.

We'll return to Rick throughout 99 Homes and the question about what drives him will never be answered.  This is partly due to Shannon's pitch-perfect performance as Rick, Bahrani's insistence on reminding us of the predominantly white world this takes place in, and the piercing dialogue written by Bahrani and first time collaborator Amir Naderi.  This isn't Bahrani's first attempt at examining the rage of white Americans coping with the Recession, that came from 2013's At Any Price with its excellent Dennis Quaid performance.

99 Homes continues this examination in a trend I should have seen coming.  Bahrani's Man Push Cart and Chop Shop looked at the largely ignored, always maligned, foreign labor which fuels our cities and automobiles.  Then he took a spin around the city in one of those cars with Goodbye Solo, and went out to the countryside with At Any Price.  Now, with 99 Homes, the locomotion of American progress had to come home at some point, and by yet again focusing specifically on one man's profession, he makes another perfect capsule of American film.

Bahrani taps into the imagery of westerns during the conflicts of 99 Homes.

Ramin Bahrani taps into the imagery of westerns during the conflicts of 99 Homes.

Bahrani looks at the homeowners industry like a ruthless necessity born from white greed.  The key word there is necessity.  Throughout 99 Homes he presents Rick as an agent of the upper class clad in lower class clothing just rumpled enough to make him "one of us".  Rick isn't written like a Machiavellian mastermind but someone who is doing exactly what he's required to do to keep himself in business and his family fed.  But what 99 Homes does, which smug movies like The Big Short failed to do, is communicate the big picture impact of people like Rick running the homeowners industry.

This is communicated in 99 Homes' white color palette.  Black, red, blue, all these colors are an unwelcome intrusion into the white world of foreclosures.  A key scene occurs early when Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) appears in court to defend the right to keep his home.  In the background, as Nash is yelling at the judge, is a black man looking at Dennis with annoyed detachment.  We immediately get the impression this black man has been here before, seen white men like Dennis before, and as Dennis continues to put up a fight he ignores the black police officer who patiently tries to escort him out of the building.  Much like the red of the blood splatter from the suicide Rick witnesses in the opening scene, the black of the officer and the man is an unwelcome hindrance to Dennis' progress.

There are other minorities present in 99 Homes, but all present in the service of white men.  When Dennis gets the opportunity to whip Rick's crew into shape it's the hispanic and women among the crew who are the first to step forward.  Rick doesn't recognize Dennis' ability to get just any crew going, but (in true Bahrani fashion) the minorities in the crew.  It should come as no surprise that the white members of the crew are the last to fall in line, and the first to give Dennis trouble, as they're so used to calling the shots they can't stand to see another white man come in and take the place they feel is theirs.

Michael Shannon

Michael Shannon's performance suggests a conflicted rage the dialogue hints at.

Even as Dennis works his way up in Rick's world Bahrani goes to lengths to show us how Dennis is just temporarily living with minorities.  Dennis' dialogue says one thing, that he's living in the muck just like the rest of them, when we know from barely a few scenes earlier that he's secured the deed to his home after losing it.  Rick revels in his whiteness, with his family perched in their too-perfect home while he takes steps to protect them from what he does.  Bahrani's choice to cast Shannon as Rick is one of the many perfect moves of 99 Homes.  Shannon has cultivated an actors actor reputation in part because of how effortlessly he channels the rage of the American working class as seen in Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter.

The most important aspect of 99 Homes comes from cowriter Naderi.  I learned about Naderi because of Hamid Naficy's book An Accented Cinema.  Naderi is a director as well, and directed another movie about white impotency in an increasingly diverse world in Manhattan By Numbers.  His input into 99 Homes' screenplay makes it the most focused of Bahrani's works, turning what is usually a Sisyphean struggle of American workers into an angry story of useless moral gestures in white America.

It's been two days since I watched 99 Homes and writing this has been a challenge because of the anger it stirred in me.  I'm usually struck by the tenacity of Bahrani's characters, the will which leads them into lives they might not wish to have but make the most of, and how the system might change for their benefit.  There is no such comfort in 99 Homes.  Rick's final note of appreciation to Dennis is another statement laced in poison.  He's grateful only so far as another sap is willing to take the moral stand for his gain.

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Tail - 99 Homes99 Homes (2015)

Directed by Ramin Bahrani.
Screenplay written by Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi.
Starring Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield.

Posted by Andrew

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