Around the world everyone knows that honest hard work gets you nowhere. In sunny Orlando, Florida, construction worker Dennis Nash learns this the hard way when he is evicted from his home by a charismatic, gun-toting real-estate broker, Rick Carver. Humiliated and homeless, Nash has no choice but to move his mom and nine-year old son into a shabby, dangerous motel. All is lost. Until an unexpected opportunity arises for Nash to strike a deal with the devil - he begins working for Carver in a desperate attempt to get his home back. Carver seduces Nash into a risky world of scamming and stealing from the banks and the government; he teaches Nash how the rich get richer. Living a double life, Nash hides his new boss and job from his family. He rises fast and makes real money; he dreams bigger. But there is a cost. On Carver's orders, Nash must evict honest families from their homes - just as it happened to him. Nash's conscience starts tearing him apart... but his son needs a home. In a...
"America doesn't bail out losers. America bails out winners." How is that for an American dream motto? This axiom, among many others presented in the film, is the foundation as the blood- splattered frames of Ramin Bahrani's latest offering begin to roll.
The blood is from a homeowner who'd rather kill himself than be kicked out of his home by Realtor Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). More of a preying vulture than empathetic human being, Carver shows no sympathy for the man who took his life instead of giving up his family home – an attitude trait we believe he has for everyone.
Bahrani, a prolific American independent director, is known for focusing on strong characters. Highly secretive and mostly broken individuals, the challenges and obstacles many of his protagonists face are mapped out and executed in unique, but usually tragic ways. His expertise is focusing more on the formula of their progression than the final outcome. With 99 Homes, Bahrani switches gears, focusing more on the narrative and development of the story, rather than his deep, often slow, evolution of memorable characters.
Thankfully, Bahrani doesn't exactly abandon ship in his character building philosophy with his main protagonist and antagonist in the film. He is able to put more focus on his narrative and visual style here, thanks to actor Shannon, who helps maintain the flow of Carver as well as the people around him. For the most part, character-driven directors find it difficult to give all creative energy to their actors, especially after building up a filmography that shows his obsession with leading his main men. But with an actor like Shannon, one of the most confident and reliable actors working today, Bahrani needs not have this fear of relinquishing control of character development. In fact, Shannon's understanding of Carver's journey and discreet choices of dialogue, begs the question if Bahrani could have achieved this character development on his own.
Bahrani's protagonist is Dennis Nash, played wonderfully by Andrew Garfield. Garfield, who was one of the few fortunate Hollywood actors to grace the stage with the legendary Philip Seymour Hoffman on the Broadway stint of Death of a Salesman, seems to have absorbed much of the acting genius of the late Hoffman. Holding his own against a larger than life acting force that is Shannon, Garfield's Nash allows himself to feed off Carver's greed and sinisterly convincing monologues with scenes of heart-wrench, grit and sensitivity.
99 Homes shouldn't be described as the typical tour-de-force, but more of a tour-de-fact cinematic achievement. The filmmaker, whose adamant cinematic attitude is almost non- apologetic on-screen, choosing to highlight a truly sad time in American history. Set in Florida in 2010, when homes were being repossessed by the bank for every chime of the clock on the wall, the film shows a raw portrait of every family's worst nightmare; a moment of complete vulnerability and uncertainty–being left on the side of the road, with all you're worldly possessions sitting on the lawn.
As troubling as it sounds, some of the best scenes of the film are when people are evicted from their homes. Beginning with Nash, his mother Lynn Nash (Laura Dern) and son Connor (Noah Lomax), and ranging from young, old, non-English speaking, accepting and manic, the film shows the different shades of people, sometimes dangerous and always desperate.
Nash, a general contractor who never sits at the wayside, becomes a true character of action. The determination of Dennis Nash, thanks to the convincing acting of Garfield, is a little glimmer of hope that man is able to triumph over the recklessness of society's actions, but at a severe cost. Nash's choices and inner struggle is a sharp and dangerous double-edged sword. Nash is a truly tormented moral character who, through his journey of self-discovery, wealth and pain, always draws on the most basic human elements. The biggest question Bahrani leaves audiences with is, "what would you do if you were left in the same situation?"
Possibly the most commercial of his work thus far, the director of Chop Shop, Man Push Cart, At Any Cost and my personal favourite Goodbye Solo, does a magnificent job of juggling the moral and ethical lines of his characters, allowing the audience to ask itself the same questions the characters are asking themselves as the film progresses. This fine element of 99 Homes keeps Bahrani's tradition of bustlingly tragic and anguished characters alive with vivid, exciting, and mostly unpredictable results.
99 Homes is one of the most complete and appealing films of Bahrani's career. Engaging enough for causal movie-goers, and enough to chew for veteran nit-picking cinephiles, the film is easily one of the most compelling films at TIFF.
Garfield may be know for his role as afflicted teen Peter Parker or Spider-Man by many, while audiences may know Shannon best for his villainous turn as General Zod in the recent Superman reboot Man of Steel. The best part about watching 99 Homes is analyzing these men, and seeing them transform before our eyes into the demons that haunt the streets and doorsteps of everyday people. Sheltered in our own little seats and watching the unfortunate tragedy unfold on-screen, this compassionate slice of other people's reality is one of the most engaging features of 2014. Founded on concrete performances, sturdy direction and a narrative with a good roof on its head, 99 Homes is built to last.
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