Sundance 2015: ’99 Homes’ is a bold, big and tense examination of the American dream

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99 Homes
Written by Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi. Story by Ramin Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
USA, 2015

“America doesn’t bail out losers, America bails out winners!” preaches Richard Carver (Michael Shannon), like a modern day Gordon Gekko of real estate to the young, innocent but determined Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield). This is what the American dream is now. It’s not enough to work hard anymore, achieving the American dream is to win at all costs. Ramin Bahrani’s examination of the American dream and the corrupt nature of it follows Dennis Nash, a young father who with his son and mother (Laura Dern) are evicted from their family home. To get it all back, Dennis begins working for the man responsible for his troubles, greedy real estate broker Richard Carver. This is the American dream.

Bahrani paces the film with the mechanics of a well-oiled and precisely constructed thriller, with the pulsating score by Antony Partos and Matteo Zingales heightening the tension of piece and DoP Bobby Bukowski composing each frame with a realistic dread. Don’t take the thriller category as meaning something sensationalized, Bahrani crafts the film with an intimate and human honesty driving each scene. When Dennis and his family are evicted from their home, it’s one of the most tragically honest pieces of cinematic reality that you’ll see this year. The back and forth that happens between Garfield and Dern on one side and Shannon and the police on the other is gripping because of how real it feels. You’ve known these people – whether it’s those getting evicted or the evictors – and maybe you’ve been these people. The actors and Bahrani’s tense and intimate direction create a wave of authentic heartbreak that washes over the audience.

It’s weird to think that this is the first actual film since 2010 that Andrew Garfield has been in. The Amazing Spiderman and its sequel weren’t films, they were commercials. Before those abominations, Garfield was one of the most interesting and talented actors of his generation, and his performance here indicates he still is. Garfield has a lived in empathy about the way he interacts with people. Consider the scenes where he himself evicts people from their homes. There’s a real sense of regret and apology with how he conducts himself. He is doing what he needs to in order to get his home back, and Garfield emanates that in his empathetic complexion and immediacy of his presence.

Michael Shannon is one of the greatest living American actors, and continues to prove why here. His natural ferocity seeps effortlessly into the role of Richard, watching him bark orders and conduct his business with his steel complexion is captivating. What he brings to the role is honesty though – despite this man’s many flaws he is still a human. Watching him lovingly interact with his children, or talk about how he came from nothing reminds you that he is a three-dimensional person despite how greedy he is. Shannon acknowledges that Richard is a human first, and a greedy real estate broker second. Most of all he acknowledges that Richard is a man achieving his version of the American dream. Richard is written as a villain, but is not one in Shannon’s mind.

There are some flaws to be had with the film despite how impressive most aspects of its construction are. It is pretty difficult to buy that his son, and especially his mother, go so long without knowing where Dennis is making all this money.  The film also would have serviced itself better and lingered in minds longer if it had ended even a minute sooner than it did. The film resolves a central conflict to let Dennis save some face, but in doing so lessens the overall impact of the film’s harsh realities of its themes and messages. As Richard tells Dennis at one point, you can’t get emotional about real estate. It’s just big boxes and little boxes. By the end, Dennis has a big box. A big empty box. This is the American dream.

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