Sundance Film Review: 99 Homes

1:44 PM

99 Homes is the latest film from acclaimed director, Rahmin Bahrani. This latest effort is an account of the aftermath of the housing crisis of 2008, but more than anything, 99 Homes is about the death of the American dream. Bahrani lays bare the cruel injustices inflicted upon the decent hard-working citizens who were forced out of their homes to face a life of poverty. Bahrani prefaced the screening of the film in saying that in his researching prior to writing the script, he realized that the story he would be telling would not only be a harrowing drama, but also a thriller. Personally, I think he focused too heavily on the "thriller" aspect of 99 Homes, so that it oftentimes comes off as a try-hard Scorsese flick. Bahrani also doesn't place enough trust in the emotional draw of the subject matter, which takes the film from a solid drama - maybe even a great one - and dilutes it with splashes of tacky MTV gloss.

Bahrani's last film, At Any Price (2012), is a more surface, over-indulgent effort, and an unfortunate contrast to some of his grittier films that have been more independent in spirit. 99 Homes strikes a good balance between those two filmic worlds Bahrani has created. 99 Homes focuses on Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), an out of work labourer faced with the foreclosure of his family home which he shares with his young son and mother (Laura Dern). Nash's efforts to save the home are futile where real estate agent Rick Carver (Michael Shannon is concerned. Carver is like a tanned, blonde devil. He removes himself from the burden of moral responsibility as he raps on doors come eviction day, a gun strapped to his ankle (just in case), like a hell-bent Jehovah's Witness. The day Carver comes to Nash's door, Nash is forced out his home, and moves his family into a motel purgatory, almost solely occupied by foreclosed families. Eventually Nash comes to work for Carver, jobless and seeing no other option. Nash quickly becomes Carver's right-hand man, but soon the lecherous business of eviction, paired with sleazy, illegal tactics utilized by Carver, starts to weigh on Nash's conscience. 

The housing crisis is inherently an emotional subject matter. It's easy to read about it in the news, a distance set in paper and ink, and feel uninvolved. Upset, but removed. But, you cannot watch on screen the underhanded actions of banks, realtors etc., and not help but feel thrust into this world, exposed first-hand to the anger and sadness. Bahrani refuses to let his audience stand in the sidelines, watching. When 99 Homes unapologetically packs a painful emotional punch, it goes straight to the gut. One scene is particularly heart-wrenching. An old man is coaxed out of his home on eviction day, clearly oblivious to what is happening. He sits on the lawn holding what few items he thought important to take, as an police officer asks him if he can stay with a neighbour, with a family member, with anyone, to each question he replies "no". The man in his later years, is essentially homeless. It's brutally honest and absolutely devastating.

I do take issue however with a number of aspects in 99 Homes - as mentioned previously, the tendency of the film to dip into a Wolf of Wall Street type glamour that doesn't agree with the emotive narrative, but I also can't get past Andrew Garfield's portrayal of Nash. Garfield is a fine actor - he's proved that in films like Never Let Me Go and The Social Network - but the problem with him in 99 Homes is just a question of miscasting. Bahrani revealed a much older Nash in the original script, but made adjustments when Garfield came into the project. He probably should have left the character as he was. The problem with Garfield in this particular role is his youthful appearance, which admittedly can't be helped, but nevertheless leaves me unconvinced of his character being a hardworking father to an 11-year old boy. A minor change of character from the father to a brother would have been transformative. Michael Shannon, by contrast is perfectly cast. As he usually is. The script, written by Bahrani is one of the film's stronger components, but with a few misguided sections. Up until near the end of the film, the world created is believable and relatable, but that trend is interrupted by a grossly over-dramatic scene that promptly pulls you out of the narrative that had been so carefully built up. 

Overall, 99 Homes is a solid drama with a strong empathetic drive, but falls victim to over-dramatization and glamour in an otherwise honest narrative. 

99 Homes
dir. Ramin Bahrani
Starring Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern
111 Minutes | USA

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