Ramin Bahrani’s newest and hollywoodiest film 99 Homes, slots Michael Shannon, one of the best living actors today, alongside Spidey sweetheart Andrew Garfield. And, just like that inequitable duo, the film’s best and worst interests become components of the same attrition. Evidenced by its bizarrely bloody opening, 99 Homes wants to be a thriller. But it also has very genuine, very Bahrani socioeconomic concerns. This time, he abandons his “Neo-Neo realist” aesthetic for something more plotted and slick. This time it’s the Florida foreclosure crisis, and this time it’s with A-List actors, a script (instead of an outline), and an Arri Alexa.
I don’t discourage departure, but Bahrani’s occasional why-not dips into different genres (like his awkward foray into comedy: Lemonade Wars) tend to feel like partial stencils of the same interests. 99 Homes, for instance, may have been more honest had it stuck to its drama. The American housing crisis is dense with dramatic opportunity, but Bahrani chooses thrills? Sure, when you’re a scheming real estate broker who packs a Glock out of fear for outraged homeowners (or trespassers as they’re often called), suspense is often element. But it does not warrant the repetitious foreboding of the gun and bloodstains, nor does it make for particularly high thriller stakes. So why not hone in on the plentiful human beats here? 99 Homes skims it instead.
The script makes several sacrifices to throw Garfield into Shannon’s throes, and it tests your immersion every time it does. Andrew Garfield plays single father Dennis Nash who also looks after his mother (an unforgivably underused Laura Dern) in a house that purportedly raised generations of their family. That’s why it’s so unbelievable and anxious when Shannon’s Rick Carver strips it all from them. Desperate Dennis can’t provide his family until he starts earning his life back from the same man who took it from him. And then it turns into a sort of real estate flavored wannabe gangster thriller where Dennis’ deeds grow dirtier and the dollars deeper.
But boy does Michael Shannon make any scene, no matter its context, thrilling to watch. And boy does Bahrani boast some poignant set ups and acute dialogs. Watch as Dennis swoons a for hire crew of despairing construction workers by rationalizing shady work as “taking back from the government” or revel in the discourse between Carver and Nash, or Carver and anyone. Shannon is so good, too good. He makes Garfield’s slippery Floridian accent and cliché ‘likable good at what he does guy’ look at best like a fairly oiled trope. But then Dennis does do unlikable things, and normally, in the gangster films it emulates, or the Wall Street movies, those things are glossed over. Here it is firmly and absolutely punished -- no one is okay with his methods. But this is a good decision executed poorly. When Momma Dern (I mean Nash) freaks out at the sight of her surprise mansion “home” it doesn’t seem earned, it only feels ungrateful and annoying. That’s because again, the thriller conceits steal from the drama, and Laura Dern’s character has not at all been established. Perhaps if her attitudes and opinions had been developed we could have sympathized with her perspective. But she has been given none and so she is, at that moment, solely and only a nuisance and obstacle of the plot.
At the same time, it proves that Bahrani’s heart is mostly in the right place here. It can be added to the list of films this year that made refreshing politically correct strides with distracting filmmaking stumbles in between (The Diary Of A Teenage Girl). And then, all that tiresome foreshadowing comes full circle in the final third. It metamorphoses into a strange, melodramatic thing, with a climax that’s something to be endured, a climax that is actually embarrassing. It’s a ridiculous monologue that I’m not sure even Michael Shannon could pull off, spouted out by the film's worst side actor. Perhaps if Bahrani weren’t so attracted to the idea of making a slick blockbuster-esque thriller, the film would have found its true path. Instead, it heeds the oft-quoted advice of its villain “Don’t get emotional about real estate” but isn’t the film’s point that we should?