'99 Homes': Venice Review

Hooman Bahrani
A hard-hitting look at America's economic divide

Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon star in Ramin Bahrani's topical film, which will viscerally connect with many viewers

Carrying a title that implicitly references the 99/1 percent divide so frequently used to describe what ails the country and much of the world, 99 Homes passionately remonstrates against contemporary economic conditions that suggest that, in real life rather than Capraland, Lionel Barrymore's greedy old Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life actually has prevailed over humanity's better instincts. While At Any Price, Ramin Bahrani's previous dramatic look at how tough things have become for so many working Americans, never found its audience, this, his sixth feature, might stand a better shot with the public since it's pointedly designed to make your blood boil. In this it succeeds, partly legitimately and to some degree via ramped-up melodrama and a notably manipulative musical score.

The script by Bahrani and Amir Naderi, from Bahareh Azimi's story, is rooted in an ugly spectacle that's repeated time and again onscreen: the forced evictions of families from their homes for not being able to keep up with payments. Served notice without advance warning, occupants are forced to vacate within two minutes under threat of arrest for trespassing in houses they may have lived in for years. The merits of each particular predicament aside, it's not possible to witness this process without being appalled by the severity of the method of carrying it out. It is also a modern film that effectively reframes in secular terms the scriptural query, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

The first family seen to suffer the indignity of ejection belongs to Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), an industrious construction worker who lives with his mother, Lynn (Laura Dern), and son, Connor (Noah Lomax), in the suburban Orlando ranch house in which he grew up. In these tough times, he's fallen three months behind with his bank, to the point that, accompanied by cops and the threat of immediate arrest for non-compliance, real estate broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) instructs them to grab their essentials and hit the road; his crew will move the furniture and other belongings out onto the lawn and, if they don't pick it all up soon, others surely will.

The shell-shocked threesome check into a cheap motel half occupied by other “evicteds,” people marking time until something turns up, if it ever will. It's not a very savory bunch and everyone has a sob story. Ashamed and embarrassed, Dennis is most upset about the effect on young Connor, who won't be able to continue in his old neighborhood school. Unable to easily secure work, he soon finds himself willing, for $250, to clean up the literal crap the former occupants of a Carver-seized house have left behind.

With no other prospects in sight, Dennis surprises no one more than himself by going to work for the very guy who kicked him out of his house. Carver warns him that “When you work for me, you're mine,” which should be a strong clue, but Dennis rationalizes bedding down with the devil by concocting a scheme by which he'll be able to get his house back this way. Out of embarrassment, however, he hides the identity of his employer from his mom and his son.

Watching decent working people, not to mention the elderly who have nowhere to turn, getting rudely turned out of their homes with no notice is so appalling that audience empathy with the anonymous victims is automatic. The reptilian Carver has the routine down cold and no one can talk his or her way out of it no matter what. This kind of blunt-force presentation of the ramifications of certain governmental and banking policies over the past three decades — the action is set in 2010 — is rare in commercially minded American films, so it's bracing and sobering to have it laid out so plainly as an everyday reality.

However, Bahrani undercuts his cause somewhat by sanctioning a cheesy, ever-churning electronic musical score that unnecessarily melodramatizes and cheapens the impact of the statement he delivers so passionately; like a roiling sea, the soundtrack incessantly insists upon emotional responses of dread and anxiety that would come very naturally anyway.

It isn't long before Dennis has his own crew working full-time for Carver, not only helping to force evictions but to steal air conditioners and water pumps from vacated houses. Seeing in Dennis strong protege material, Carver begins grooming him as such, and whenever he sees the younger man's determination falter, he offers encouragement along the lines of how, in the coming tough times, only a few will succeed in boarding the ark, while “all the others are going to drown.”

This pertinent theme, something willfully ignored by Hollywood other than in dystopian futuristic fantasies, drives every scene in 99 Homes. Bahrani and Naderi limit their explanation for how and why things came to such dire state to a too-brief speech by Carver accurately but breezily blaming a series of Wall Street-friendly policy changes by presidents Reagan, Clinton and Bush II. Another minute or so of sober explanation might have elaborated on the reasons in a way that would have helped any viewer digest them, a move that also would have aimed the film a bit more at the head and not just at the heart and stomach.

As it is, Bahrani has still created an urgent work, the burning anger of which will viscerally connect with many viewers, who will recognize themselves or people they know up on the screen. Garfield's scruffy Dennis looks bewildered and resentful much of the time, but his Everyman working stiff finds the wherewithal to struggle for what he believes is his (even if to the detriment of his family), to be tough in the misguided cause of doing wrong so that he can try to put things right and, finally, to truly open his eyes.

If Dennis is the earnest foot soldier just trying to stay alive day to day, Shannon's Carver is the jaded top brass who's learned to use a rigged system to his own maximum advantage and has neither pity nor self-regard left. In a role Christopher Walken might have played 20 years ago, Shannon impressively portrays the charismatically corrupt master player of a dehumanizing game, a man who's learned all the angles and invented a few of his own.

While the older suburban neighborhoods throw off a certain nostalgic mid 20th century charm, the modern Florida neighborhoods, with their soulless mega-mansions and banal luxuries, exude a sterile vulgarity that adds a toxicity to the dream of wealth that needs no aesthetic elaboration.

Production companies: Hyde Park Entertainment, Image Nation, Ashok Amritraj Productions
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Noah Lomax
Screenwriters: Ramin Bahrani, Amir Naderi
Producers: Ashok Amritraj, Ramin Bahrani, Kevin Turen, Justin Nappi
Executive producers: Andrew Garfield, Manu Gargi, Ron Curtis, Arcadiy Golubovich, Mohammed Al Turki
Director of photography: Bobby Bukowski
Production designer: Alex DiGerlando
Costume designer: Meghan Kasperlik
Editor: Ramin Bahrani
Music: Anthony Partos, Matteo Zingales

No rating, 112 minutes