99 Homes

This is the American Dream, updated‘ – Dara Higgins on 99 Homes

When Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) finds himself behind on mortgage payments, he and his family are evicted from their house, the home that Dennis pleads he was born and raised in. But the courts are not in a forgiving mood, and the following day stony face realtor Rick Carver turns up with the sheriff to kick the family out. It’s a harrowing scene. The confusion and pain and fear of suddenly having your home taken away is pretty real here. The erstwhile owners of the house are told they’re trespassing. Belongings are chucked on the lawn. Dazed and defeated, Dennis, his son and mother (Laura Dern, who’s playing grandmothers now. Where does the time go?) pack what they can into Dennis’s truck and head to find the grungiest motel they apparently can.

Thinking that some of his tools have been stolen by one of Rick’s goons, Dennis heads to the office, and in showing his mettle impresses Rick enough for the realtor to offer him a day’s work. When Rick sees that Dennis will literally shovel shit to make money for his family, he sees a protégé, or at the very least a man so desperate he knows he can get him to do his bidding.

Thus begins decent, hardworking-when-there’s-work single father Dennis’s dance with devil. And how diabolical is Michael Shannon as Rick? Pretty fucking diabolical. His philosophy is greed. Don’t get sentimental about a house, he says, it’s just a box. As Dennis gets more work from Rick he realises it’s not all above board. It starts out with removing air conditioner units and getting the banks, who now own the properties, to pay to have them reinstated. Before long Dennis, hitherto a blue collar, honest guy, realises he may have flair for directing evictions himself. He stands dispassionately as he recycles the same guff Carver gave him on the day he came knocking on Dennis’s door as some chump’s mattress is thrown onto the sidewalk.

The money can’t mask the shame. Dennis can’t let his family know what he’s doing. Or his neighbours at the motel, many of whom are also evictees. Dennis is working for the man, mammon, an avaricious beast intent on taking all that’s left from people who have nothing. This is the American dream. It’s about money. And the money is there is you’re willing to do anything to get it. Which includes looking in the eye of your fellow human and you tell them they’re suddenly trespassers in their own home, because they economy collapsed through no fault of theirs and they couldn’t keep up the mortgage payments. Tough shit, baby. That’s capitalism.

That’s what this movie is about: what capitalism does to people, on both ends of the spectrum. Carver’s shameless pursuit of money, how more than enough is never enough, Dennis’s willingness to kick people like himself out onto the street in order to make money for his family and the people who suffer when capitalism goes wrong: a cavalcade of sob stories and excuses and aggression that all ultimately lead to the same thing; all your earthly possessions by the side of the road.

Raman Bahrani, who wrote and directed, uses the hand held, verité approach. But it doesn’t grate, rather it adds to the reality of the realty, especially during the eviction scenes. If I have a criticism of this film, it ends rather abruptly. The denouement is unclear. But that’s a nitpick. Both Shannon and Garfield are excellent in their respective roles. Shannon oozes an oily malevolence, Garfield shifts about in his own skin and together they have a Gordon Gekko/ Bud Fox relationship, except on a smaller scale. Millions rather than billions. Instead of companies being dismantled and communities destroyed in one fell swoop, it’s piecemeal. House by house, box by box. This is the American Dream, updated.

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