“This is my favorite film of the year”

by Steve Pulaski

Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes is the kind of film I foresee having the ability to resonate a bit too much with people who have been in the situation of Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash character, who has lost his family home – and dignity – in a matter of minutes. It’s the kind of film to inspire empathetic tears from those who have been in the tragic situation, which often is the result of poor circumstance beyond somebody’s control, of losing everything in a matter of moments. Even having never been in an eviction situation myself, I found myself deeply unsettled and emotionally rocked by Bahrani’s brutally honest and emotionally potent look at the real estate market, zeroing in on a difficult circumstance for a man who has just lost it all and has to regain it back by making a deal with the devil.

The film revolves around Dennis, a single father who, along with his mother (Laura Dern) and his son Connor (Noah Lomax), is evicted from his home by a ruthless Realtor named Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). In that home, Dennis helped raise his son and his mother worked as a beautician out of her small office in the home, and all of that was taken away from them in the blink of an eye, when Carver, his goons, and the local deputies knocked on the door and gave them two minutes to pack all necessary belongings. After moving to a housing complex that houses many evicted families, Dennis is offered paltry cash from Carver for handyman work around his homes. Upon being offered $50 to tag along on his first real estate venture, Dennis smugly questions whether or not his offer is a joke. “Fifty dollars shouldn’t be a joke to you, son,” Carver cockily says; he knows Dennis can’t afford to pass up the quick cash, no matter how dirty the job.

99 Homes
Written & Directed by
Ramin Bahrani
Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern
Release Date
25 September 2015
Steve’s Grade: A

Dennis works his way up with Carver as a mentor, going from backbreaking labor to illegal and deceptive practices, such as stealing working appliances from homes purchased from rival clients and selling them back upon companies finding the properties have been damaged. Dennis does this all under the nose of his mother and son, who see Dennis’s cash flow increase from a couple hundred bucks to a few thousand in a short period of time on the belief that he is working construction. Though Dennis himself wouldn’t want to admit it, he becomes sick with greed, despite hesitantly performing evictions himself with a Ruger strapped to his leg.

Bahrani, who also co-wrote the film with Amir Naderi, is sure to immerse us in both the contrasting lifestyles in the film. He allows us to see Dennis embrace the life Carver has in store for him, which includes extensive kickbacks and amazing opportunities at advancement. However, before we become too entranced with the glamour and the expensive champagne provided by this lifestyle, Bahrani is quick to show us the far more prominent alternative, which is the one Dennis is living with his mother and son. It’s a life of food scarcity, stockpiled bills, unresponsive lawyers, little opportunity, and, above all, the constant fear of security and dependable housing. The scene where Dennis and his family are evicted is one of the scariest scenes I’ve seen this year because, out of all the horror and suspense films I’ve seen this year, sadly, this circumstance is the most realistic for many Americans.

Garfield gives his most elaborate, conflicted, and heartbreaking performance yet, portraying a man torn between integrity and doing what is beneficial for his mother and son in the momentary. He showcases strong, natural talent, being a consistently believable man that simply wants to do right by so many people, including himself, that he finds himself running in circles, checking his ethics at the door in favor of what helps him and his family in the moment – before you knock or criticize his decisions, consider if you were in the same situation and how you would likely do the same thing. The heartbreaking aspect of his performance stems from the commonality of not only his situation but the choices he makes whilst in that situation; if he knew years before what he’d be doing, he would’ve likely been sick with himself and that’s what Bahrani affirms with each intimate closeup we get of his tired, worn face.

Then there’s Michael Shannon, an actor I’ve long-hailed as one of the finest American actors working today and one of the most charismatic and daunting screen presences to come out of Hollywood in years. Alongside his troubled, surmounting performance in the under-seen Take Shelter, 99 Homes serves as his best work. Shannon is frightening here, charismatic and suave in some instances, but entirely brutal and unforgiving in others. He has a demanding vocal-tone, only emphasized by his occasional cackles, recurring raspy edge in his dialect, and a scowl that shakes one to the core, and his slanted eyes, locked-jaw, and firmly decided mannerisms and decisions make you feel like you’re nothing but a piece on his chessboard. Furthermore, his speech about America not bailing out losers, which conveniently echoes through a foreclosed home, is the year’s most honest and truthful speech from any film I have yet to see. He gives the year’s best performance, in my book, performing a tricky balancing act of charisma and fear to the point where we have enough information on him to respect him or hate him for what he does. After all, he does epitomize the American Dream, a fact that is not lost on Bahrani.

As a film, 99 Homes pulsates with tension. It feels like its narrative is essentially operating on a field of landmines in the way that a small screw-up or delayed action by Dennis will cause Carver to spiral out of control and ruin his life even more, for he, for the whole film, has got him in a vice grip, or something will further make Dennis and his family fall a few notches down the ladder of social class. Bahrani is sure to keep the events realistic and never theatrical; even the concluding sequence doesn’t come off as far-fetched because of the wide-variety of scenes we’ve seen in the film that focus on the elements of the eviction process. Bahrani’s film is one that constantly builds and never falls into cheap theatrics in order to prompt a reaction. Any kind of emotional reaction it gets, it surely deserves.

In its entirety, however, this is an absolutely devastating film, one of the saddest, yet greatest, I’ve seen of this decade. It’s a film that shows the true horror and powerlessness that brews in a person when they lose their job and their home. The situation kickstarts a feeling of worthlessness, which is implied from the first scene, a longer take that includes numerous camera pans that show a man who has committed suicide in the house that Carver needs to put on the market. The American Dream has come with the ideas that a job, a home, and a well-maintained family are indications of success, beyond any kind of human deed or morality, and with that comes unfathomable feelings of uselessness when either of those are taken from a person.

99 Houses is a powerhouse film on all cylinders; an electrifying and brutally honest film about the “got mine, screw you” attitude America was founded upon and still abides by to this day. Andrew Garfield gives a heartbreaking performance and Michael Shannon better take the salary he earned for this film, buy mops, and clean house like a janitor at the Oscars next year, along with Bahrani, who has too long gone under the radar as one of America’s most valuable filmmakers on a human level. This is my favorite film of the year, so far, by far.