Favouring complexity and steeped in shades of grey, writer/director Ramin Bahrani crafts a tense global financial crisis thriller.
When Lynn Nash (Laura Dern, Wild) and her son Dennis (Andrew Garfield, The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro) are evicted from their home, they're given two minutes to collect all the belongings that they can carry. As quickly as they can, they gather important items from the house where both Dennis and his son Connor (Noah Lomax, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water) were born and raised, their pleas to the supervising sheriffs falling upon unsympathetic ears. Dennis asks if such a brief window of time is mandated, with the bank's real estate broker, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon, Freeheld), replying that it is merely a courtesy. The aftermath of the foreclosure of their property might seem sudden, but Lynn and Dennis have already been branded not as former owners, but as trespassers.
Their emotional reaction to losing the object society covets and tries to acquire above almost all others isn't unique, nor is the unsympathetic manner in which their situation is handled. Dennis will soon learn the reality, as the struggling contractor follows the only path he can to attempt to regain his home: assisting Carver to put others through the same ordeal. And while it may appear that diverging sides of the economic divide converge in their working relationship, the two residents of Florida circa 2010 navigate the same middle ground. Both progressed from putting people into houses — Dennis in building them, Carver in selling them — to throwing people out of them; what separates the duo isn't their starting points, bank balances or eventual aims, but how long they can live with the actions the fiscal environment dictates they carry out.
In 99 Homes, writer/director Ramin Bahrani (At Any Price) and co-scribe Amir Naderi (Cut) uses their intersection to chart the awkward, unfeeling space the global financial crisis cast an entire nation into, whether desperately scrambling to save inhabited structures or finding a way to make money through the misfortunes of the market. The film may be fiction, but it trades in the truth of tough times and just as difficult choices. Some lose everything, others profit, and a rare few turn the former into the latter; however, each outcome has its costs and consequences.
Indeed, ambiguity reigns in the filmmaker's gripping offering, with little cast in black and white within its frames. Shade of grey taint everything the pair does, as their dialogue and exchanges illustrate: rather than helping those who hindered him, Dennis spies a route to a better future; instead of thrusting families out of their homes, Carver sees opportunities. Shades of beige tint the properties they're reclaiming, stripping and flipping, the only brightness coming not from green suburban lawns but from the cold, hard light of day. Neutral colours are the only tones that can exist in a world lurking between the haves and the have nots — and yet, there's never any doubt that nothing here is neutral.
Of course, a dramatic film that plays within such a loaded milieu, and follows two seemingly opposing characters that form two sides of the same coin, is only as potent as the way it traverses the chasm it presents. Though it is evident where his loyalties reside, Bahrani never simplifies either figure or their scenario; his leads provide dynamic performances that present the surface of their parts before peeling back the layers, both for better and for worse. Garfield is vulnerable but never naïve, oozing sincerity that helps the feature weather its more contrived turns. Shannon appears more clearly constrained within his hardened role, but is also given more room to toy with the extremities of survival in corrupt circumstances.
Accordingly, 99 Homes gathers its tension from their complexities, from the clash of noble and selfish intentions, and from wondering where Dennis' journey into Carver's territory will come to a conclusion. That is film is scored like a thriller by composers Antony Partos (Tanna) and Matteo Zingales (The Lost Aviator) imparts further feelings of suspense, though the narrative largely takes care of that itself. That cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (Rosewater) shoots the bulk of the movie's content — the parade of repossessions — hand-held and in the same manner as a heist enhances both starkness and moodiness, as also added by Bahrani's own fast-paced editing. The only picture it can all paint is one of devastation; 99 Homes isn't just about chasing the American dream its titular dwellings represent, after all, but about its destruction.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Director: Ramin Bahrani
USA, 2014, 112 mins
Release date: November 19