As the Oscar nominations for The Big Short testify, the 2008 economic collapse continues to provide raw meat for heavy-duty dramas, as well as comedies of the blackest sort. 99 Homes gets down to the bone of the matter, since it’s concerned with the housing bubble that started the whole disaster. Set in Orange County, Florida, where rampant building in the late 90s and early 00s created a surplus of mini-mansions and put the notion in every existing homeowner’s head that his property was a bottomless gold mine to borrow against, Ramin Bahrani’s tale isn’t subdued enough to qualify as a cautionary tale. Though the losers who find themselves at the mercy of ruthless real estate agent Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) might provide lessons in reckless American financing, Carver’s unabashed opportunist does not, as some have analyzed, represent the 1%. What he actually represents is that element which sees through the sorrow and the pity of any economic disaster and finds a way of making money out of it. And for what it’s worth, Shannon is the perfect actor to play this land shark. His mush mouth delivery and rough features telegraph the man’s callous disregard for anyone stupid enough to have been caught in the racket the banks perpetrated on the public. He shows up at foreclosed homes with his paid cop pals and throws people out, along with their furniture and whatever shred of dignity they have left, without the slightest twinge of remorse. If anything, he implies they deserve it, not for being deadbeats but for being dumb.
These scenes, which Bahrani draws out to unnatural lengths, are as painful to sit through as any Eli Roth torture vignette. The main one has to do with Dennis (Andrew Garfield), a young man living with his mother and son in the house he grew up in and which has been leveraged to get him through a long spell of underemployment. Though Dennis is a jack-of-all-trades in the construction business, he hasn’t been able to get much work since the housing bubble burst, and Carver arrives to set him and his kin on their asses, right on their front lawn. Counterintuitively, Dennis ends up working for Carver, who needs a handyman of his wide-ranging skills to pull off his various schemes involving the purchase of homes from loan scofflaws at rock bottom prices. Economic neophytes may not care much about the mechanics of these schemes (which sometimes involve the theft of air conditioning units), but I do, and one of the reasons I like this sub-genre of post-crash dramas is that they are useful in teaching how the disaster came about in ways that are more illustrative of their effect on the average person than, say, a documentary might be. Unfortunately, Bahrani and his co-scenarist, Tokyo-resident director Amir Naderi, aren’t consistent and generous with their explications, and some of Carver’s moves seem overly complicated. It’s difficult to draw a straight line from the con to the millions he aims to make on these deals.
But the neophytes will presumably not care and thus should become wrapped up in Dennis’s dilemma, which is how to keep his very profitable work for Carver a secret from friends and family. Even as he’s given direct contact with Carver’s world of secret mistresses and mafia-like dealings with larger institutions, not to mention his toxic philosophy, which springs from a tragedy that befell his father, Dennis continues to lie to himself, pretending that as soon as he gets his house back he’ll bolt the game, but once you’re in it you’re already doomed, and that’s a truism of screenwriting, not life. Bahrani is adept at making all this high dudgeon discomforting and dramatically consistent, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve seen it all before, maybe just not in such a brutal way. This sort of selling-your-soul story is as old as Job, and while it can always be adapted to whatever social situation develops for a given era, it’s difficult to make it fresh when you focus on the victim, who tends to be the same loser from one era to another. In the end, the movie doesn’t deserve a character as richly imagined as Rick Carver. It should have been about him, not Dennis.
Opens Jan. 30 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608) and Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).
99 Homes home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2014 99 Homes Productions LLC