The latest film by director Ramin Bahrani is a modern day parable about money and the breadline, a tale of those who do their best to survive within a system which often works to lengthen the odds of their prosperity. Bahrani’s films have almost always been praised by critics, especially in Europe, but recent attempts to find a broader audience for his work have not proven a great success. In the case of 99 Homes, this seems like a real shame, since it has a timely message to offer about the inherent contradictions which undercut America‘s foundational belief in self-made opportunity.
Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a skilled labourer and single-father who loses his job when construction is hit by the implosion of the US housing bubble. Things go from bad to worse when it is revealed that Dennis’ mother Lynn (Laura Dern) re-mortgaged her house to try and support her son’s fledgling career. They receive a visit from Rick (Michael Shannon), a real estate shark who re- possesses their family home and turfs them out onto the street. With their backs to the wall, Dennis realises that the only construction work he’s likely to find will come from working for Rick – and so follows a tale of everyday corruption and moral uncertainty fuelled by the fear of the next worse thing that may wait the corner.
It’s a simple story, perhaps guilty of being too simplistic in its moral perspective, but the script is handsome, and the direction well on point. Garfield and Shannon both give good performances which play to their strengths – a palpable fragility from the former, creepy sleazeball deadness from the latter – and its running time flies along in a crisp edit. It merits a comparison to the work of a true realist great like De Sica, but it never quite reaches the highest pathos that it aims for (in part because the story arc is, at times, too routine and by-the-numbers). Bahrani here has offered a familiar meditation on greed and compromise that borrows well from the thriller genre – it holds your attention and your sympathy from start to finish. For those who claim that popular cinema today is too infantilised, too reliant on flash and fantasy, with no moral centre or human message: 99 Homes is a film that dares to entertain and hold up the mirror.