American Nightmare: Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes
Kate Lawrie Van de Ven
To claim that there is something magnificently operatic about Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes risks suggesting that it is pitched at an overly dramatic level, as though there could ever be too much intensity marshaled in an account of the recent housing-market crisis that pulled millions of Americans from foreclosed homes. Yet that adjective, operatic, keeps coming to mind. The film begins amid the immediate aftermath of a suicide, played out under the disquieting, urgent score by composers Anthony Partos and Matteo Zingales. Much later, in the heart of the screening, one may realize that the musicians’ compositions have accompanied nearly every moment of the film, setting a tone of desperation and unending menace.
The soundtrack is, however, only one means of many through which Bahrani places the viewer into the experience of someone watching their world crumbles in a surreal crisis. The most effective contribution on this front is the nuanced, career-making performance of Andrew Garfield. His work here is leagues away from the Spiderman franchise, reminiscent instead of his breakout role in 2007’s Boy A, in which his naturalistic and powerful turn opposite Peter Mullan earned him a BAFTA. Here, Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a single father and unemployed builder seeking to regain his family home for his mother (Laura Dern) and young son (Noah Lomax), after it is summarily foreclosed upon and they are given mere moments to leave. Nash is left with no legal recourse and yet finds himself in the uncanny situation of being offered decidedly illegal work by the very man who took his home, an unscrupulous, gun-toting realtor named Rick Carver (played with eerie, shocking sang-froid by Michael Shannon). When this devil’s bargain actually places Nash in a position to improve his family’s life over and above their previous situation, we realize the drama at the heart of the film is whether the American soul can be saved.
The America painted here does not permit one to have both scruples and hope. Corruption runs from the lowliest court clerk to the sky-high boardrooms where wealthy real estate speculators and municipal officials broker illegal deals with blatant disregard for the lives of the young families, retirees, disabled and disenfranchised people who were given conveniently bad advice by their banks. Bahrani’s informed take on American corruption cannot be turned away from, and while the film offers the pleasures of appreciating virtuoso performances by actors working at their absolute best, it also leaves one angry, and mobilized.
Bahrani has been heralded as “the best new American director of recent years” by no less of an authority than Roger Ebert (mere months before Ebert’s passing) and the designation is undeniable. The not-so-subtle irony of such a title, however, is how the work of Bahrani’s career to date has been stamping an increasingly defiant question mark over the bedazzled image of the American Dream. His previous features — Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo and At Any Price — have approached questions of disillusionment and marginalization with increasing stakes. With 99 Homes, he brandishes every tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal to expose the impenetrable wall piding the One Percent elite from the rest, those living their lives in the 99 homes of the title, who are tired of the greed and corruption and ready to build their own redemption.
Film Screening: Fri 10/24/2014 21:15 Emirates Palace