It begins with blood. The first forty minutes of 99 Homes is among the best stretches of cinema I’ve seen in years. Perfectly crafted and spellbindingly executed in every way, 99 Homes reveals itself in its opening act as something of a horror movie. It simultaneously manages to evoke an otherworldly dread and a spiritual terror as potent as any horror film, relying on monsters and metaphors while depicting something as banal as it is harrowing for that very banality. At its very best, 99 Homes, the latest film from the prodigiously gifted Ramin Bahrani, isn’t just the best film yet about the economic crisis from which the United States is still recovering; it may very well be the best possible film.
99 Homes memorializes something many of us may like to forget. What happened in Florida just a few years ago was an unmitigated catastrophe, a leap from nearly negligible to double-digit unemployment rates followed swiftly by double-digit foreclosure rates. The “fucking absurdity” of following mass disemployment with mass evictions, slavishly obeying a system totally unable to digest a crisis of that scale, is noted early on by suddenly-rich realtor Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) as he walks out of the latest foreclosed house he plans to flip, leaving behind a corpse and a broken family.
The first eviction we suffer through, moment by moment, is that of Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) and his mother Lynn (Laura Dern). Tossed aside in seconds by an overwhelmed and spiteful judge and with no legal assistance available, they cycle through every stage of grieving in a matter of moments as Carver and the local sheriff remove them like the trespassers they, legally speaking, now in fact are. Forced to relocate to a motel full of similarly-situated people flung from the middle class to the margins, Dennis at least wants to recover his stolen tools – tools we later learn are intimately tied to the crisis in which he, his mother, and his young son Connor (Noah Lomax) find themselves – and upon arriving at Carver’s office, so impresses the realtor with his gumption that he quickly finds himself recruited. Odd jobs turn into regular work turns into grooming as Carver’s second man, and Dennis quickly finds himself showered with ugly-gotten gains flayed from the misery of others.
The shame of 99 Homes is that, transitioning from its unparalleled opening sequence into a genre conceit for canny and strategic reasons – how else to get a view of both the consequences and the causes of the crisis – it cannot free itself from the trappings of the genre. The latter half of the film begins to slow, and all too quickly unable to disentangle itself from the conventions of similar films. Wall Street was a great film, but it was great when I was literally one, and frankly the “innocent young man dragged into the shady world of drugs and/or finance by a charismatic master only to experience a rapid rise and commensurate fall” movie has been done to death, and 99 Homes doesn’t improve on its conventions. When we get to the obligatory and totally out-of-place hedonistic party scene, I nearly groaned.
Yet for all the 99 Homes never fully surrenders its punch, its intellect, and its urgent moral challenge. Unlike so many movies that aren’t about anything even when they purport to be Important Film about Big Issues, 99 Homes never stops being furiously about almost more things than it can contain. A dialectic between the spiritual and the moral, and the power of money to corrupt that balance? Check. An elegant fable of how capital eventually devours or discards even its most loyal servants? Definitely. A blistering illustration of how a middle class is eaten away from the inside? Yup. A canny interrogation of the intersection of power, rules, and the very nature of reality itself? Oh yes. The most parsimonious depiction of the true meaning of due process to hit America film screens in years, putting every damn legal thriller to wilting shame? Indeed.
It’s also an actor’s studio – Shannon is unsurprisingly terrific, Garfield surprisingly terrific, and Dern, who is so overdue for an Academy Award that alone is cause to cancel the damn thing, is great even though her character barely gets a second dimension to work with. The electricity of their performances and their chemistry powers the movie, even as it finds itself less and less able to dictate its own path, until finally every great about the film bursts out again in its final moments. 99 Homes, like all movies should and so few do, embraces cinematic and not classical dramatic structure, eschewing a long dénouement for a glittering climax, a bold statement of saying what needs to be said (or at least a certain humility over what can be said). In the end, 99 Homes uses one last clever twist of structure to turn what could be a limitation – its need to focus on its central characters at the expense of its perspective – into an ingenious statement on the all-enveloping nature of tragic catastrophe for the world it depicts. It hints at an invisible world beyond its borders, gorging itself on tears, while escaping all consequence, subjecting millions to the grinder from the safety of a glass penthouse a mile high. 99 Homes is far from perfect, but when it’s good, it’s good for the ages, and when it’s on target, it strikes deep. I’ll be chewing on it for a long time to come, and so should you.