99 Homes is the fifth and most sensational feature by Ramin Bahrani’s, a slam-bang morality play in the Wall Street mode set closer to home. Here, the embodiment of rapacious, conscienceless, deregulated capitalism is now a Florida realtor, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), who evicts people who’ve been foreclosed on (sometimes under criminally false pretenses), using cops to pull crying, pleading, raging families out of the houses. That’s what happens to the protagonist, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a barely employed builder and single dad living with his son and mom (Laura Dern) in the house where he grew up. The scene in which Carver and his men arrive on Nash’s doorstep is so agonizingly pitched and gruelingly drawn out that I had to get up and walk in the theater. But Bahrani is pushing it in the name of realism. Owning a home in the United States is hugely freighted with emotion, with issues of real worth and imagined self-worth. He wants to invade our space.
The film turns on an improbability you just have to go with: that Carver takes a shine to Nash, who proves himself by literally shoveling shit. Really: An evicted homeowner has backed up the septic tank before departing, and Nash charges in where Carver’s regular lowlife employees won’t. This is the Wall Street (also GoodFellas) template, in which an honest young man acquires a satanic mentor and can’t resist his newfound power. We’re complicit. After going through Nash’s eviction, we root for him to make big money and get his home back, even if it means doing unto others … Well, there’s the rub.
Bahrani’s last film, and first with stars, was At Any Price, which was better than most people said but made in the drearily realistic style of ’80s Midwest farm indies. Bahrani learned from his mistake. He opens 99 Homes with a self-consciously bravura tracking shot that starts on the feet of a man who has just blown his head off in the bathroom while his family stood by and ends with Carver barking into the phone about the next scheduled eviction.
In the best devil-mentor tradition, Carver delivers punchy, driving monologues on the subject of how his business actions make sense in the larger capitalist economy. “America doesn’t bail out losers,” he says. “America was built on bailing out winners.” He’s proud to steal from the government or its entities, like Fannie Mae. He even finds a way of yoking self-interest to Scripture, likening himself to an animal refusing to drown when Noah’s ark sails. You gotta love Shannon. He has such a twitchy, wild-man vibe that most people forget he’s a controlled (and marvelous) stage actor. His Carver is a man who — like Shannon — has channeled his demons with supernatural discipline.
One of my complaints about The Wolf of Wall Street was that Martin Scorsese kept the victims offscreen, allowing us to groove on his anti-hero’s brazenness. 99 Homes is more conscientious — and more heavy-handed, too. When Nash becomes Carver’s right hand, he evicts weeping, screaming families more in sorrow than anger, and Garfield signals his misery so madly that the film loses some dramatic tension. But Bahrani’s casting of Dern is genius. She’s such a profoundly unaffected actress that you instantly buy her aversion to her son’s lucre. She has a moral and aesthetic problem with that tacky mansion on the waterway. She wouldn’t fit in there.
Tidy and moralistic as it is, 99 Homes makes you understand why this swampy financial ecosystem thrives. Bahrani’s first films were lucid studies of people on the outside of society looking in. Now he’s able to dramatize the way everyone fancies himself or herself an outsider and — out of fear, a sense of injury, or both — can justify any kind of behavior to get inside. In this time and place, even evictors fear the knock on the door.
*This article appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.