Electrifying: that’s the word that comes to mind to describe Ramin Bahrani’s latest feature, 99 Homes. The opening sequence, in which a family is evicted from their home, is not just relatable but so intensely real that it made me cringe with discomfort. But writer-director Bahrani isn’t out to punish us: he simply wants us to feel what his main character (Andrew Garfield) is experiencing…and we do. What’s more, Garfield is so desperate that he accepts a spur-of-the-moment job offer from the very man (Michael Shannon) who threw him out of his house. This is no time for pride: he needs the money.
That’s what makes 99 Homes so compelling: it’s about real people who make a series of hard choices. And, as the filmmaker shows us all too clearly, the current climate of mass foreclosures has created a playing field where there are no clear-cut heroes or villains. Shannon’s character isn’t so much a bad guy as an opportunist who’s learned how to game the system. Garfield isn’t really a hero, either; he’s just doing what he can to avoid being a full-time victim.
The stakes are high in virtually every sequence of 99 Homes because we’re dealing with people being displaced from their homes: for each of the people we meet, these represent more than mere living quarters. Being evicted threatens their physical and emotional stability as they tumble through our society’s safety net.
If this sounds like a “message movie,” it is, but unlike Bahrani’s previous film,At Any Price, his agenda is seamlessly absorbed into the dramatic narrative. You can’t take your eyes off the screen.
Bahrani rose to prominence with a remarkable series of films that brought to mind the glory days of neorealism: Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo. Having established his bona fides, he then tackled his first project with a professional cast, led by Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, but despite its topical subject matter—the plight of the American farmer—At Any Price seemed hopelessly contrived.99 Homes takes the best qualities of his early efforts and channels them through a well-crafted screenplay, brought to life by top-flight actors. Garfield and Shannon do exemplary work, joined by such experienced colleagues as Laura Dern and Tim Guinee.
Unless you have a heart of stone, 99 Homes will affect you as few movies have this year.