With its socially relevant themes and ambiguous representations of good and evil, Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes (2015) represents a welcome return to form for the director after At Any Price (2012), the only flop of his career to date. From his heartbreaking debut Man Push Cart (2005), Bahrani’s reputation has been forged on dignifying marginalised lives as he tackles big themes with miniscule budgets. Chop Shop (2007) was another startling, humanistic tale but his third feature, Goodbye Solo (2008), would prove to be his masterwork to date. He then fell off the radar for a while before returning with the leaden At Any Price, a film that butchered its best ideas by consorting with a string of lazily attached, un-Bahrani-like clichés and allowing Dennis Quaid to run rampant in what was an embarrassingly ill-judged performance.
As 99 Homes opens, we’re ushered into the world of a predator about to pounce in what is, by now, a run-of-the-mill scenario. Michael Shannon’s Rick Carver, a soulless real estate broker, is about to pounce on a new acquisition as a desperate home owner turns to suicide as a way out of a bottomless financial morass. From his first appearance on screen, it’s clear that Carver is the shark, whilst another soon-to-be evictee and single parent Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is the small fry, floundering in shallow waters, waiting for his own inevitable fate to seal his annihilation. Before long however, there’s a reversal of fortunes for Nash as he seeks revenge from Carver, only to offered temporary employment from the man all his hatred of the world is directed at. This flip may be lacking in credibility but it’s an undeniably sweet and dramatically loaded proposition.
From that troubled opening perspective of Nash looking down the barrel of anonymity and homelessness to being the guy who progresses to directing the troops as they storm and conquer the humble abodes of helpless evictees brings a wavering moral tightrope in sharp focus. Naturally this unsavoury duty comes with temptations attached and with Shannon playing the role of devil incarnate, swapping humanity for an avarice that prospers unchecked, Nash is headed for murky waters and an inevitable confrontation with an even more fearsome predator – his conscience.
Both the leads are sensational. Shannon, as you’d expect, is especially good, here reverting back to stoic, calm and callous mode with an explosion possible at any time. It’s a zone in which he’s very comfortable and one that’s perfectly suited to displaying a brand of intensity that he’s very much made his and his alone. Garfield, leaving his dire flirtation with comic book heroes behind, goes in hard to uncover the working class grit and soul of a down-on-his-luck father scratching in the dirt to makes ends meet. He brings a real conviction to Nash – not an easy task in a type of drama that can easily tip over into saccharine and sermonising as it searches for a resolution. Bahrani’s screenplay, co-written with Amir Naderi and Bahareh Azimi , may not be perfect, but it’s full of substance and relevance and never leans too hard in one direction in terms of compromising social commentary at the expense of making a drama that genuinely compels.