Festival favourite Ramin Bahrani returns to the Venice Lido with 99 Homes (2014), a dramatic thriller set at the sharp-end of the housing crisis. The very first shot shows that there is blood on the bathroom walls of America. The recent economic travails are not just some victimless white collar larks – Margin Call style – but rather a human tragedy, the result of an ongoing and systematic fracking of the middle-class, driving thousands of homes into foreclosure and leaving families on the street. Shedding his superhero costume, Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, an ordinary working stiff – a construction worker – living with his son (Noah Lomax) and his mother (Laura Dern) in their small suburban home.
The mortgage is being called in and Nash doesn’t have the money to make the payments, especially as the housing market has tanked and his skills are no longer required. Rick Carver (a towering performance from the ever-watchable Michael Shannon), a property speculator, arrives on his doorstep with the local sheriffs to execute the eviction. The scene is played out in full, and the frustration, anger and fear is tangible as an indifferent authority crushes people’s lives with the banality of a well-practised, ready-scripted routine. Without work and holed up in a motel, Nash goes looking for Carver’s crew to reclaim some stolen tools, but Carver offers him a job instead. Nash finds himself in a devil’s dilemma: can he get his own house back by helping Carver kick other people out of theirs?
Bahrani’s latest feels like a direct riposte to Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street (2013), whilst channelling Scorsese’s earlier gangster movie vibe and energy. Nash is almost like a Donnie Brasco or Michael Corleone, entering into a world to which he is fundamentally morally opposed but becoming increasingly complicit and exposed as he finds himself surprisingly adept at the dark arts. His relationship with Carver turns from initial hatred to something like admiration, as he gazes with wonder at Carver’s palatial homes and material wealth, listening to Carver rap out a Manichean world-view that makes Gordon Gekko look like a bleeding-heart socialist. “Are you a religious man, Nash? For ever one saved, a hundred drowned,” he schools his protégé. Garfield convincingly portrays Nash’s move to the dark side as a gradual but compelling series of compromises.
Pitched against his own people, Nash struggles with his conscience as he is gripped with a yearning to get a break in what has so far been a life rife in disappointment and poverty. Shannon, meanwhile, is stupendous as Carver, a man of immense power, but someone who is also fully cognisant of the immorality that makes his success possible. He’s a man who will own many houses without ever really feeling at home. As with 2012’s At Any Price – which also screened at Venice – Bahrani’s movie sheds light on an under- represented, marginalised America – in the previous case that of big agro-business – and he’s finding a rich dramatic vein out there. With 99 Homes, he’s created a complex and thoughtful political drama with the speed and tension of a good thriller.
The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.