Once named “the director of the decade” from the late, iconic film critic Roger Ebert (who, in turn, has this film dedicated to him), Ramin Bahrani’s new film 99 Homes is a self-described “humanist thriller”, which takes us into the realities of the American housing crisis, out of which tragedy and corruption has emerged. Set in Florida, we meet Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a down on his luck construction worker (and all around handy man) whose family (including a rather perplexed Laura Dern, who plays his Mother) is forced out of their home by flash real estate broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) after it’s repossessed by the bank.
The scene of the house repossession, which helps set off the film, is an immediately striking one. The camera moves freely through the house as Garfield and Dern deal with a stressful, confusing and dehumanising experience, that has stemmed from their own lack of understanding of the process. Which, seemingly, has been made complicated and confusing for that very reason. As it turns out, people tend to get very rich off the bad situation others may find themselves in. You immediately empathise with the family, and detest Shannon, with Bahrani (also serving as editor) and his cinematographer Bobby Bukowski doing an incredible job of throwing the audience into the deep end. What follows is a series of events that sees Garfield’s character end up working for Shannon, going on to evict people from their homes just as Rick Carver did to him just weeks before.
Dennis does this, at first, to save his family home and get them out from living in a motel. But it’s not long before he gets caught up in the corruption that has led Rick into living the financially comfortable life anyone would desire. The question then becomes, does he let himself get completely sucked into this world of no return, or can he escape and redeem himself before it’s too late?
It’s a thrilling and engrossing storyline that is buoyed by fantastic performances – especially from our two leads – a stellar script from our director with Amir Naderi, a gripping score from Antony Partos and Matteo Zingales, as well as some daring and excellent cinematography. Bahrani keeps the audience asking “what would I do in this situation?” throughout, ultimately leaving you to answer the question of who is the real villain in all this. Though detestable at the start, it’s hard not to come to respect – even root for – Carver, much as he wins over Nash.
What’s really remarkable (and, perhaps terrifying) about the film, is its inspiration from reality. In our interview with Bahrani, he says almost all of the plot points on corruption, abuse of the system and mistreatment of the everyday family, are based on actual events he witnessed or researched while in Florida. And though Florida serves as the film’s home, it was filmed in New Orleans and really could represent anywhere in the USA that the housing crisis has impacted. Much as I said in my Sydney Film Festival review of Going Clear, it’s horrifying to imagine these are realities that the government is not only allowing to happen, but actually a part of; local and state governments benefiting from the crisis. As Shannon’s character alludes to, it’s created a Kill or Be Killed world, where real estate brokers are forced into doing things they never signed up to do.
Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon shine in the film, and both are deserving of award nominations for their turns. It’s a gripping film, as much a thriller as it is a drama, full of social commentary (which equates it at times to a horror film knowing these things are actually happening), with a mesmerising score, excellent direction and impressive cinematography. 99 Homes is a film everyone should see.
Film Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Australia single DVD release has a small selection of special features: a run of interviews with the cast and crew, as well as the theatrical trailer and a few other trailers from Madman releases (all of which are some Indie gems in their own right).
The one-on-one interviews are brief, but insightful. Michael Shannon reflects on his characters, working with Andrew Garfield and Ramin. Andrew Garfield – who I always forget is British – talks about the themes of the film, filming the impactful eviction scene that helps open the film, his ideas of community, working with Laura Dern and more. Dern continues the conversation, reflecting on what she learnt from making the film, Clancy Brown talks about playing Mr. Freeman and Ramin reflects on his research, working with his brilliant cinematographer Bobby Bukowski and his acclaimed cast . Among other things, he reveals that Garfield’s character was originally older, but when Garfield wanted to be involved, he wrote it younger for him – and he calls Shannon one of the greatest actors of our generation, here in a role he was born to play. I would definitely agree.
It’s not much, but everything in there is of high quality. Would have loved to see more behind-the-scenes and making-of footage in here, or the oft-missing audio commentary! This is a fantastic film, with an important story – it deserves as much of an audience as it can find. If you missed its brief cinematic release last year, do be sure to get your hands on its home release or grab it digitally.
Special Features Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
This review was originally published during the Sydney Film Festival. The film is now available in Australia on DVD and the Blu-Ray. You can read and listen to our interview with the director HERE.