Film: 99 Homes
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Primary Cast: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern
US Release Date: 25 September 2015
99 Homes is the fifth film from Iranian-American director and screenwriter Ramin Bahrani. Until this past weekend, my contact with Bahrani was limited to his appearance in the documentary Life Itself. While it is unlikely that most casual moviegoers are familiar with Bahrani, critics tend to speak highly of his work, especially of his 2007 film Chop Shop. Bahrani has established himself as a compassionate storyteller who has a keen interest in those who are disadvantaged in some way. Given his reputation, I fully intend to watch some of his previous films, but 99 Homes won’t be the reason that I do so.
99 Homes opens just after a suicide. Florida real estate mogul Rick Carver (Shannon) is at a home to serve an eviction. The home owner lies dead in the bathroom as his wife and children scream outside. Carver is numb to the entire scene. He drives away in a luxury vehicle.
Meanwhile, a young single father named Dennis Nash (Garfield) appears in court to appeal the impending foreclosure of his family home. Nash is an unemployed construction worker. His mother Lynn (Dern) works out of their home as a hair stylist, and his son Connor (Noah Lomax) is terrified of what will happen if they lose the house. Shortly after Nash appears in court, he and his mother are evicted by Carver and the police.
With his truck loaded down with all it can carry, Nash takes his mother and son to a run-down motel. There, he realizes that a member of Carver’s crew stole a significant number of his tools. He goes to confront the man and ends up fighting with him in a parking lot as Carver looks on. Carver then offers Nash a chance to earn some money, which eventually leads to a full-time job. Though he has trepidations about working for a man like Carver and about serving evictions, Nash takes the job so that he can make enough money to save his family’s home.
Bahrani is clearly a talented filmmaker, and I have no doubt that he has some worthwhile things to say, but 99 Homes stills falls a bit flat. The film features solid performances and contains several scenes that are emotionally powerful. And yet, despite all of Bahrani’s efforts to present a compelling, character-driven critique of American inequality, 99 Homes is simply not written well enough to be noteworthy cinema.
The film’s most consistent strength lies in its performances. Though her part is not as large or as layered as Garfield’s or Shannon’s, Laura Dern does what the narrative asks of her, and she adds to the film’s pathos just about every time that she’s on screen. Garfield conveys Nash’s panic and determination well, and the scope of his emotional range is never in question. Still, it is Shannon who shines the brightest in the film. His strong on-screen presence and his ability to elevate the watchability of lackluster material are both apparent in 99 Homes. Shannon and Bahrani also deserve credit for not flattening Carver by turning him into a full-blown villain.
99 Homes also presents viewers with a number of truly impressive scenes. The fact that these scenes become sparser as the film goes on is one of the reasons that viewers may leave the film unsatisfied, but those that do occur are still worth mentioning. The opening sequence and the scene in which Nash and Lynn are evicted are both tense and deeply unsettling. There are also a number of quieter scenes in which various people are evicted from their homes that are likely to haunt viewers for some time.
There are some instances of intelligent nuance in 99 Homes, which improves a story that often relies too heavily on coincidence and melodrama. For instance, neither Carver nor Nash are presented in black and white terms. In a sense, they both want the same things. What separates them is the frequency with which they are able to overlook the human cost of their work, but even that distinction is not always clear. By blurring the lines between Carver and Nash (if only for a little while), Bahrani adds depth to 99 Homes and encourages viewers to consider the situations that it depicts from more angles than they might otherwise.
Unfortunately, much of the complexity and subtlety in the film dissipates in its second half, and some of the lines in film are so clunky and overstated, that I couldn’t help but cringe. The narrative also feels incredibly contrived and grows increasingly unrealistic as the film goes on. As good as the opening moments of 99 Homes are, that does not change the fact that some of its later scenes border on ridiculous.
99 Homes is about a system that was designed to exploit and disregard the wellbeing of most who live within it. The film succeeds when it doesn’t wholly condemn any of its individual characters, and it is at its strongest when it focuses on the horrors of the larger system around them instead. In its better moments, Bahrani’s film gives viewers a sense of how overwhelmingly complex, messy, and devastating the housing crisis was while also hinting at what allowed it to happen in the first place. But when it gives into an urge to paint things in black and white, it isn’t as good. 99 Homes has a frustrating tendency to moralize when it should examine, which obscures some the more complex issues that it tries to address. The film also abandons cutting realism for melodrama near the end; in doing so, it undermines its more serious arguments.
99 Homes is a well-meaning film that puts a personal face on the housing crisis that impacted so many. There is some value in this aspect of the film, but it does not necessarily make for the most impressive cinema. The film tugs at the heart strings at times, it ratchets up the tension at times, and it’s noticeably thought-provoking at times; the problem is that it doesn’t sustain any of those moments long enough. The film begins on a promising note, and it remains mostly watchable throughout, but it does not live up to its own potential. Given Bahrani’s commitment to telling stories that might not otherwise get told, he is certainly a director to watch, but as I left the theater after watching 99 Homes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something had gone wrong along the way.
Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. As always, feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions or comments.
I have finally begun the process of applying to graduate programs in cinema and media studies. Which is to say that I will probably be freaking out for most of the next 6 weeks. That said, there are a lot of movies coming out in the next few months that I am very excited about, so I don’t expect to stop posting on regular basis.