Ramin Bahrani has made five feature films thus far in his fascinating career, and all of them have been some of the best films of their respective years, with the trio of Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo forming some sort of personal trifecta of small, less-is-more-inspired filmmaking, almost the American answer to the Dardenne brothers. His latest, the viciously angry social drama 99 Homes hits some of the same keys of maximized melodrama that his previous film did, the underrated At Any Price with Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, while telling a topical, important, and thoroughly engrossing story that will likely be too intense and too real for some viewers. Concentrating on the financial and housing collapse of 2008 and centering the action in Orlando, arguably the epicenter of the sub-prime mortgage disaster zone, Bahrani and co-writer Amir Naderi have fashioned a compelling and provocative narrative that finds a struggling young man named Dennis Nash (an impassioned and excellent Andrew Garfield) learning just how far he’s willing to go to put food on the table for his son and mother, let alone a home over the heads. Michael Shannon is the real estate shark named Rick who has figured out how to take advantage of an already corrupt system, exploiting the failures and misery of others for his own financial gain; he sits at the same table as Gordon Gekko and Blake from Glengarry Glen Ross. The image of Shannon incessantly ripping his E-cigarette is one of the more searing visuals I’ve seen in any movie this year, and the effectively restless and propulsive music was scored by Antony Partos and Matteo Zingales, giving the film a level of anxiety that Bahrani ratchets up through his controlled and vigorous direction. Tackling topical themes and plotlines in works of Hollywood-based fiction can sometimes be a tricky proposition, but here, Bahrani and his skilled team knew precisely how to calibrate all of the elements.
The film kicks into high gear after Nash, his son, and his mother (the reliably fantastic Laura Dern) are evicted from their life-long home by Rick and two police offers, in an emotionally harrowing scene which is repeated throughout the story to underscore just how many people were affected by the greed and duplicity of financial managers, bankers, the federal government, and themselves. The superb cinematographer Bobby Bukowski can lay claim to having shot two of the most socially relevant and topical films of the year, with groundbreaking work done on Oren Moverman’s homeless drama Time Out of Mind, and incredibly intense lensing on 99 Homes. The film pulses with an immediacy, heightened by Bukowski’s smart widescreen framing, with the hazy Orlando sunlight offering the false promise of a happy day. The opening steadicam shot is nothing short of bravura, introducing the audience to the reprehensible but magnetic character of Rick, with Shannon shredding the screen with predator-like energy and endless answers to the various situations he’s found himself in. And while Garfield is undoubtedly convincing as a man pushed to his moral and ethical limits, all throughout, we’re constantly reminded that this is the Michael Shannon show, with this tremendous actor delivering an utterly ferocious performance that feels all too possible and realistic – you know there are plenty of people out there just like Rick, ready to swoop in and grab any and all of the pieces that they can line their pockets with; the agitated screenplay constantly stings and reminds us of how vulnerable many of us truly are at any given moment in life. This is the REAL horror movie for the month of October, and one of the best strengths of the film is its ending, which feels logical, understandable, and rational, as it takes into account everything that has come before it, with the final, mildly ambiguous beats suggesting nothing simple or happy for anyone. 99 Homes is tough but vital cinematic medicine that goes down smooth while leaving an appropriately bitter aftertaste. It’s one of the best films of the year.