Right from the moment this film was announced, I was immediately hooked by the timely premise and the cast. Set in Orlando, Florida and loosely based on a real-life events, Andrew Garfield plays a twenty-something single dad Dennis Nash who’s been struggling to find decent work as a construction worker. His family gets evicted from his family home where he’s lived since he was a kid, where he lives with his young son and hairstylist mom. Right away I sympathize with Nash as he just can’t seem to catch a break no matter how hard he tries.
On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got a shrewd, wealthy real estate broker Rick Carver, played with steely gaze and gravitas by Michael Shannon. The actor is a towering figure already at 6’3″ but there’s something inherently ominous about him that makes him so perfect for this role. It’s easy to think of Carver as nothing but a greedy bastard who’s all about making money off of other people’s misery. I mean, when he drives around the block of certain neighborhoods in his fancy car, all he sees is what profit he could make from these homes. Yet as the film progress, we see that he’s not a one-dimensional villain and there is a reason behind his madness.
Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani tackled the subject of the housing crisis with such astute and empathetic eye. The way he filmed the eviction scene is truly heartbreaking and the actors portray the grief and outrage convincingly. I read that Bahrani apparently used some non-actors playing people being evicted from their homes, but he didn’t tell the lead actors in order to get an authentic response from those scenes.
The film is tense and suspenseful despite not having much action going on. I felt that under a lesser director, they’d probably sensationalize this story with unnecessary shoot-outs or sex scenes to drive the point across. But thankfully Bahrani chose subtlety and infuse the film with nervous energy that keeps building until a boiling point in a riveting finale. He’s definitely a director to watch and no wonder Roger Ebert called him ‘the new great American director’ in this piece from 2009. “His films pay great attention to ordinary lives that are not so ordinary at all,” the article says, and indeed he accomplished that in 99 Homes. I think being the son of Iranian immigrants gave him a unique perspective on American culture and events that shape Americans.
The strength of the film also lie in the two leads Shannon and Garfield. It’s interesting that both have just recently done a superhero movie(s), Man of Steel and Spider-Man, respectively. But you won’t even associate either of them with those roles, which is a testament to their fantastic performance and versatility. Garfield captured the anguish of his character perfectly, and he makes for a convincing young dad. There are some emotional scenes between him and his son (Noah Lomax, who bears a striking resemblance to Garfield), as well as his mom (the always watchable Laura Dern). He has a great rapport with Shannon and they play each other off so well. I have to mention Tim Guinee as well who has a small but memorable supporting role as a friend of Nash who’s driven to extremes by circumstances.
This film certainly doesn’t paint the real estate system in a flattering light, but yet somehow Bahrani manage to present the story as it is. It’s not a preachy piece that push a certain agenda. It’s more about two characters from two opposite real estate spectrum, and how their lives end up affecting each other in ways they’d never imagine.
Like any formidable house, 99 Homes is built on a strong foundation of a sharp script and held up by intuitive direction and powerful performances. A timely drama that will linger long after the closing credits. I can’t recommend this one enough. I definitely look forward to more films by Ramin Bahrani and more intriguing roles for both Garfield and Shannon.
Have you seen 99 Homes? Well, what did you think?