Ramin Bahrani attracted acclaim with small-scaled films about people on the margins of society like “Man Push Cart” (2006, an immigrant food cart vendor) and “Chop Shop” (2008, auto-body repair shop). His larger budgeted film, “At Any Price” (2012) with Dennis Quaid about a family farm was a heavy-handed father-son melodrama. His latest “99 Homes” about foreclosures which was shown at the Telluride Film Festival is an improvement, even though it takes on some of the excesses of its characters.
In introducing “99 Homes” at Telluride, Bahrani said that being honest and hard-working “means nothing today” and that the film is “about us”.
“99 Homes” takes place in Florida where Dennis (Andrew Garfield, convincingly un-Spiderman-like), a young single father, is not paid for his latest construction job and is unable to make payment on the home his shares with his young son (Noah Lomax) and his mother (Laura Dern). The family is evicted and their belongings are moved to the front lawn. The foreclosure is overseen by real estate broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). Shannon is chillingly amoral as a wealthy man unconcerned with the human costs of his actions. He dominates the film with the forcefulness of his performance.
Dennis and his family are forced to move into a seedy motel with other victims of foreclosure. Bahrani vividly depicts the conditions in the crowded motel of noisy fights and backed up sewage. Garfield convincingly conveys the despair of a man whose life falls apart.
Carver offers Dennis a job with him, and he ends up with not just any job. Dennis forecloses on others, becoming Carver’s trusted assistant, and aware of Carver’s scams, forgeries and illegalities. Dennis is able to spend more money on his family, hiding his new source of income.
Laura Dern is a warm, maternal presence, but giving her character an inner strength that makes her suspicious of the changes in her family’s lifestyle.
Films like “Two Days, One Night” that depict the contemporary economic crisis, kept focus on the working poor. “99 Homes” would have been stronger if it had remained centered on the struggle of people foreclosed from their homes without extreme solutions. Instead, the film, like Dennis, wallows in the upper class decadence of his boss. Bahrani has co-written a problematic screenplay of broad strokes, heavy-handedness and coincidences.
Dennis’ activities lead to an overdone sequence in which the formerly mild-mannered father of his son’s friend, about to be foreclosed upon, turns out to be armed. The man holds an armed confrontation against Dennis and the others trying to evict him.
After the film, Ramin Bahrani had a conversation about the film with German director Werner Herzog, a Telluride regular. Bahrani said the when in Florida, the setting of his film, he never saw “so many guns.” He called Florida a land of “palm trees and guns.”
Bahrani was born in North Carolina of Iranian parents. He grew up around classic literature, thinking Camus and Dostoyevsky wrote best sellers. He said that if you’re a filmmaker and don’t read, you won’t do anything good.
To give realism to “99 Homes”, Bahrani went on evictions. For one of the film’s strongest sequences, he never told an actor that the elderly man in a scene with him, playing someone being evicted from his home, had dementia. Bahrani called this the “best scene”. It was based on an actual eviction.