Director: Ramin Bahrani
Writer: Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi
Cinematographer: Bobby Bukowski
by Jon Cvack
Rahmin Bahrani’s filmography is one of the most underrated of all working filmmakers. Although I haven’t yet seen At Any Price ('12), it seemed a significant departure from his first three incredible and perfect films - Man Push Cart, Goodbye Solo, and Chop Shop, with Goodbye Solo being my favorite of the three. Bahrani is one of the few Great American Filmmakers; a pure indie version of Paul Thomas Anderson or the Coen Brothers, creating films that put a microscope to the DNA of American life and culture. His films leave you wondering why and how the story feels so unique and plays with such engagement, all with such minimal style and amazingly simplistic stories. Even after seeing four of his five films, I don’t know how he does it. His ability to hook viewers in without offering any carrots, bells, or whistles is something that only the great classical Euro masters achieved.
99 Homes takes place in present day Orlando, Florida, dealing with the lingering effects of the ‘08 Florida housing crash. In his best role yet, Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a construction worker, long past due on a loan for some equipment, putting his house up as collateral. He has a son Conor (Noah Lomax) and lives with his mom, Lynn (Laura Dern). Unable to pay the loan back, their house is reclaimed by real estate agent Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) who’s the first character in a film to pull off smoking a e-cigarette without looking ridiculous. Having foreclosed on so many homes, Rick has a relationship with the police, who refer to him as ‘Chief.’ He also has a crew that’ll guts the homees after the people are kicked out. And so Dennis, although told that he had thirty days to work out the default, is caught off guard and forced out of his home in the movie’s best scene. It’s at this moment where Bahrani’s talents shine, as you don’t know what it is precisely that makes the scene so powerful, though ostensibly from some combination of perfectly balanced, minimalist camera work, strong performances, and great natural dialogue.
So we’re thrown into the common core of any Bahrani film; that is, a seemingly small problem leads to gigantic consequences. Dennis, Conor and Lynn all end up at a run down motel, with neighbors who’ve also been kicked out of their homes. When Dennis tries to get a job, realizing his tools have been stolen by Rick's crew, chasing them down in order to retrieve them. A fight erupts and Rick breaks it up and decides to bring Dennis onto his crew. It was at this moment that the logic seemed a bit too Wallstreet ('87) for my tastes. I’m not sure why Rick brought Dennis on. I suppose it’s because he seemed smart and passionate, but it also seemed like a very convenient solution to get us into the foreclosure world. Has Rick never met anyone else that could take on the role? All that aside, Dennis starts making some serious money as he takes on the dirty job of kicking people out of their homes, and living the lavish life that he thinks he always wanted.
What I liked most about the film is that it gets into the details of the Fannie Mae government housing programs, in which a person facing mortgage default can receive $3500 for their home, no question asked, if they allow for a quick foreclosure. Another program involves realtors receiving some form of appliance or repair subsidy in the event of their theft. So if the air conditioner, pool pump, or cabinets are stolen from the foreclosed property, banks can received a significant cash injection from the government to make the repairs and preserve the home value. Rick flings Dennis a carrot, getting him to make the bogus thefts, and later promoting him to kicking people out of their homes in return for returning Dennis’s old home, which he soon doesn’t want since he’s beginning to make enough money to build an even bigger house.
It’s here where the story starts to stray from the hyper-realism that Bahrani does so well. For instance, when Dennis purchases a new mini-mansion, overlooking the ocean, with a private pool that his son wanted so bad, Conor and Lynn hate the place. It is a moment of such self-righteous, first world privilege that I was nearly shaking my head. Here you have a father that’s working his ass off for his family, buys them a beautiful home, and his mom threatens to move back to Tallahassee and take Conor with him. For all Bahrani does to show us real Americans, this seemed about as far as he’s ever strayed from realism. I don’t know much about living in a motel, but I do know that, as a child, shocked to accepted that my family and I were kicked out of our homes, and after balling my eyes out, watching my entire room tossed out into the streets, only to discover a few months later that things were fine, and even better than before, and that the entire nightmare was over - that at the very least, I would have appreciated the house that my dad worked so hard to get. A much cleaner, though far less dramatic alternative would have been to show their disapproval without the screaming and ultimatums.
At the time I was willing to overlook it, assuming that the film would continue on the predictable path and I’d soon forget the problem. Yet it descends into another cookie cutter Hollywood ending. What makes his first three films so great is their very pure and real endings, neither happy nor sad. After Dennis needs to deliver a forged document to the court in order to ensure that 100 homes are ready for foreclosure in order to make way for a bulk purchase by some large corporation, Dennis is overcome with guilt. He can’t turn it in. Nevertheless, someone tracks him down and rips the forged document from his hand and the deal goes through.
The last homeowner then needs to get kicked out. Dennis heads to the site and the man pulls out a rifle, threatening to shoot anyone that comes near him. Unfortunately, if there’s a moment that Bahrani seems to have entered into cookie-cutter Hollywood tropes it is here, as Dennis raises from cover behind a police car, walking toward the window, arms raised, even while the man is threatening to shoot him dead, and finally confesses that the paper was a forgery, somehow placating the man, who lowers his rifle. It’s the type of ending that makes you feel the studio execs strong arming Bahrani into a more redemptive conclusion. He can’t just ditch the big home and quit the job. He needs to risk his life to proclaim to the world that he did wrong. Again, the self-righteousness is laid on thick. I’m not saying that Dennis shouldn’t have felt guilt, but I think, at most, he should have just quit the job. He could have cashed out, given up the wealth, and returned to his small place. Instead, we get this grandiose and unrealistic scene that doesn’t really make all that much sense when deconstructed; that is, if I was the cop watching this bizarre spectacle I would probably assume that Dennis was attempting to mollify the situation, rather immediately assuming guilt and tossing Dennis into the squad car. There were no questions asked. His life is ruined, all because he couldn’t stand to see other lives ruined.
The ending was verging toward Hallmark movie and I’m hoping that for the next one Bahrani returns to the reality which makes him such a powerful voice. It was so great up to this ending. It’s worth checking out, even if you just turn it off right after the court scene and use your imagination for how it all finishes.
BELOW: Dennis and his family get kicked out
Thoughts on films, old and new
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