March 3, 2016 Leave a comment
I saw 99 Homes almost two years ago at TIFF 2014 and haven’t been able to shake it. It’s a powerful film about the 2008 financial crisis – told from the point of view of the hundreds of thousands of families who were evicted from their homes after the housing bubble burst. It is a perspective that has been unfairly overlooked in films about this subject – which prefer to focus on the big financial firms, their executives, and the role they played in bringing about the collapse. This is a movie about the people that were destroyed along the way, which can’t be neatly compartmentalized in graphs or pie charts.
Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a construction worker who supports his mother (Laura Dern) and young son (Noah Lomax). They live in a small, but beloved, house in Florida. There’s a knock on the door and Dennis answers. It’s a sheriff and Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), an e-cigarette smoking real-estate broker. Dennis is told that he and his family are being evicted and that he has two minutes to pack his personal belongings. It’s not a pretty scene. Director Rahim Bahrani (who Roger Ebert proclaimed to be the next great American director) keeps the camera tight while the family goes through a gamut of emotion – shock, disbelief, anger, and then finally, scrambling to put some of their belongings in a duffel bag before they’re literally kicked to the curb. It’s powerful and heartbreaking.
The family moves to a motel, occupied by dozens of other families in similar situations. Without any other options for work (obviously, being skilled at home-building wasn’t an asset during this time) Dennis ends up being employed by Carver, evicting other innocent families from their homes. While it’s an obvious bit of plotting (normal guy makes a deal with the devil and his morality suffers), Michael Shannon is compelling as the unapologetic and amoral opportunist. He is so good in the role that it’s not only believable, but practically understandable, that Dennis becomes his protege. I just wish that the shades of grey extended to Dennis’ family, who end up viewing the world in such a black-and-white way that you can see the strings of the screenplay guiding them.
The film’s climatic moment is a quiet speech by Shannon about how there’s no nobility in being poor. It’s outrageously cynical and bitter, and a difficult pill for the 99% movement (clearly evoked by the film’s title) to swallow. Carver’s point is clear: no one cares what the “losers” think – America is a country built for the “winners.” And even though the “losers” may occupy the moral high ground, they can keep it. What’s the moral high ground worth when you don’t have shelter and can’t feed your family? It’s a brutal and depressing position, delivered so well that it’s astounding Michael Shannon is consistently overlooked by the Oscars (move over Sad Leo memes, the Sad Michael memes shall be born…if he ever gets nominated again).
99 Homes is the perfect counter-point to the slick fun of The Big Short. There are no celebrity cameos to describe obscure financial terms, a star-studded ensemble, or a sense of good triumphing over evil. Instead it’s a movie about the people on the ground, the people who just have to endure a system that doesn’t care about them, that they don’t understand, and that takes their homes away from them.