99 Homes begins with struggling construction worker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) and his family being evicted from their Florida home. He lost his job, the financial institutions didn’t care, and now he and his loved ones are out on the street with nothing but what they can carry. It’s a tough sequence to watch, even knowing that for Dennis the only way is up and it’s the man behind his troubles, real estate shyster and con man Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), who’ll provide his way back. In 2015, this was a look back at the recent past, with the Global Financial Crisis and America’s imploding housing market already fading into memory. In Australia in 2018, with stories about banks ripping off their customers and robbing the dead making daily headlines, this story plays out a little differently.
If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the current banking royal commission, you’ll be well aware that our financial institutions aren’t exactly on the side of the little guys. And while the federal government is already making noises about cracking down and tougher penalties, considering they dragged their feet for years when it came to merely looking at what the banks were up to, it’s not unreasonable to assume the retribution they’re promising will be long-delayed at best. People are angry. Where can they turn to get the justice they demand? Where else but the only place where the system still works: the movies.
One of the things movies do best is provide catharsis. If you’ve ever watched a vigilante movie, you know how it works. First, the movie sets up a situation that reflects a problem in the real world — street crime in vigilante movies, but it can be anything so long as it’s something the audience already feels strongly about — then the movie resolves that problem. It doesn’t matter if the solution is desirable or realistic (murdering muggers by the dozens is neither) — movies aren’t lectures in good governance. What matters is that the tension is released by seeing the bad guys punished and the problem resolved.
These days, mainstream Western cinema isn’t particularly interested in telling this kind of story, at least overtly. And when they do attempt it, they seem more interested in remaking old films (see the recent Death Wish remake — or don’t) than addressing the real concerns of current audiences. Films like The Big Short go partway there, but those films aim to cause outrage about a situation at a time when audiences are already outraged. What we want is a film that relieves the pressure of our lives, not adds to it.
That’s what 99 Homes does so well. Now living in a seedy motel, Nash returns to Carver’s office to retrieve his tools taken during the repossession so he can try to make a living. Impressed by his attitude, while also needing an off-the-books repairman and clearly being the kind of man who believes everyone can be bought and sold, Carver offers him a job. Having to serve the man who put his family out on the street is a kick in the guts, but Nash needs the money — and when you need money, humiliation usually isn’t far behind.
Director and co-writer Ramin Bahrani walks a fine line through much of this film, showing the temptation of following in Carver’s footsteps without ever making his activities seem reasonable. It’s a world where short cuts and ripping people off have become normalised; where it’s smart business to see everyone around you as something other than human because you’re basically stealing from them every chance you get. Any similarities to the big banks’ recent behaviour isn’t exactly coincidental. The point here isn’t for us to come to understand Carver or what he’s doing, it’s to see how low Nash has sunk — so low that he sees this exploitive way of life as viable.
Garfield does a great job as a nice guy who isn’t exactly weak, but isn’t quite strong enough to resist temptation, either. It’s Shannon who carries this film, though. He’s totally convincing as the kind of gruff alpha male who’s so upfront about who he is that it takes a while to realise his honesty in no way extends beyond that. He’s a bad guy who seems to have the system all worked out and working for him; someone who’s going to get away with everything because his kind always do. That’s why it’s so satisfying to see him get taken down.
If only real life could be like the movies.
Watch '99 Homes'
Monday 6 April, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Starring: Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern, David Maldonado
What's it about?
After his family is evicted from their home, proud and desperate construction worker Dennis Nash (Garfield) tries to win his home back by striking a deal with the devil and working for Rick Carver (Shannon), the corrupt real estate broker who evicted him. From director Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo).
Watch: Interview with '99 Homes' director Ramin Bahrani