99 Homes (****)
Running time: 112 minutes
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Tim Guinee and J.D. Evermore
(Belfast Film Festival screening, Queen’s Film Theatre, 18/04/2015)
‘THESE people are just like us’, a down-and-out Laura Dern tells her son, both of them evicted from their family home and forced to live in a cramped motel filled with other victims of the financial crash. ‘No, we’re not like them’, Dennis (Andrew Garfield) insists, despite all evidence to the contrary.
This is 2008 America, shell shocked by the crash and the bailouts, were identities and economic positions are dangerously unfixed, the working class rendered vulnerable to sudden, traumatic shifts in circumstances. The mechanics of the burst housing bubble have been set out in documentaries like Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, but in 99 Homes we get a disciplined, quietly righteous ground level view from Ramin Bahrani, who has earned festival acclaim in the past with features like Goodbye Solo and Chop Shop.
It’s an excellent double header. Garfield is the struggling construction worker trying to earn honest bucks, living at home with his mother and young son (his wife’s out of the picture). Behind on his mortgage payments, the court orders and eviction, overseen by Michael Shannon’s real estate shark and the sheriffs that call him ‘boss’.
Rick (Shannon) offers Dennis a Faustian bargain, giving him a job on his eviction crew, literally pulling him over to the other side of the divide. As part of the bank’s storm troopers, it’s up to him to show up on the worst day of these people’s lives, again and again, a grim ritual of repetition peppered with well-observed, desperate details.
The news is met with denial, anger and ‘what now?’ acceptance by the dazed homeowners, thrown out on the streets. It’s the small indignities that sting: the two minute courtesy period to grab what they can or the estate agent’s shoo-shooing them to the public pavement. The impotence and resentment lies just below the surface, threatening to erupt.
Rick is a consummate property predator, cruising at-risk neighbourhoods, sniffing out blood in the water. He operates along the logic of pure commercial opportunity. ‘Don’t get emotional about real estate’ he warns, ‘it’s just boxes’. Dennis, whose labour has produced houses, is determined to get his own back, holding on to the idea of a house as a home, a solid connection to land, community and family, a view that the Great Untethering of 2008-9 has rendered archaic.
The order of things is dissolving, and there’s nothing that can be done. Best just find the nearest trough and dig in. All that bailout money’s there for the taking, for those willing to trade decency for survival. Dennis gets a spot on the lifeboats, but at what cost? This is steely, essential film-making.