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Review: 99 Homes -“Pure, raw emotional bliss”


It’s hard to imagine a filmmaker ever wanting to dedicate his opus to a film critic, yet if you pay close attention to 99 Homes’ closing credits, right after the main cast’s names you’ll be able to read “For Roger Ebert”. Maybe now you’re less surprised, since the person in question is the legendary film journalist who revolutionised the whole profession. In the end, if the most popular and respected of critics names you “the director of the decade” it would be impossible to ignore such a compliment. However, this doesn’t make writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s heartfelt tribute to the late film critic’s legacy any less genuine, moving or important.

After all, the Iranian-American and North Carolina native filmmaker has deservedly established himself in the festival circuit with his first five films, grabbing attention (and awards) among others at Venice, Cannes, Sundance, and Berlin plus he’s even been the subject of retrospectives like one at New York City’s MoMA. As it often happens though, the opportunity to break into a wider market was the result of collaborating with two of Hollywood’s top A-list talents currently at work, Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon, a pairing that indeed caught my attention since they’re my personal number one actors in their respective age range.

The brilliance of 99 Homes comes from tackling a bleak subject matter such as the US housing market crisis with the compelling approach of a taut humanistic thriller, built around the premise of a Faustian-like pact that’s destined to blow up in the protagonist’s face. Former Spider-Man Garfield isn’t any less amazing playing young single father and struggling construction worker Dennis Nash who lives with his hairdresser mother (the always wonderful Laura Dern) and young son Connor (newcomer Noah Lomax). When the bank repossesses their home and the equally ruthless and charismatic businessman Rick Carver (a superb Michael Shannon) evicts them, Dennis drowns in desperation as he has to move his family to a motel and he can’t find new work to support them.

The conniving Carver has hit the jackpot by scamming the real estate market, Wall Street and the US government and when he offers Dennis a chance to work for him, the overwhelmed young man accepts. He starts off with small tasks pertinent to his line of work and expertise but soon Carver seduces him with the opportunity of making enough money to support his family and buy their old home back. Dennis gets in the same business that’s ruined his own life and starts evicting people but inevitably those two worlds collide, jeopardizing his relationship with his family and gradually eroding his conscience towards a powerful, emotionally charged finale.

When I first saw the film at a press screening back in August before theatrical release I was stunned and mesmerised by Garfield and Shannon’s performances and had no doubts they would righteously earn Oscar nominations this year. Five months later, sadly, their work has been thoroughly snubbed by the Academy as the film most likely didn’t have the same traction of other titles with huge machines backing their award campaigns (plus it looks like The Big Short grabbed all the attention the voters could give to a financial crisis story with its flashier commercial vibes). This however doesn’t diminish the value of 99 Homes as one of 2015’s best films in the slightest and it’s rather timely that audiences can now discover or revisit the work of these two brilliant actors thanks to the film’s home entertainment release.

Barhani, who’s also a filmmaking professor at Columbia University, has crafted a remarkable piece of work that was expertly researched by him, his co-writer and of course his lead actors who spent quality time in Florida within the actual environment their characters belong to. The filmmaker’s raw and essential style is perfect to portray such a sad period of America’s most recent history. Despite this being a fictional story with fictional characters, it couldn’t have been closer to the truth. When I was lucky to interview Bahrani back in September for another outlet, he mentioned how one of the real people Garfield met to prepare for the role experienced exactly what Dennis goes through as that man wound up doing evictions and had to evict a friend.

Garfield’s authentically moving portrayal of a man pushed to the extreme by society is reminiscent of his other socially charged role in 2007’s Boy A, the film that put him on Hollywood’s radar. However, given Sony’s embarrassing cock up with their further reboot of Spider-Man, although it’s a shame to see Garfield out of the franchise, I’m personally happy he can refocus on material that is actually worth his immense talent. In 99 Homes the young actor has the perfect scene partner in Michael Shannon who, in my humble opinion, is the most formidable and interesting thespian working today. Shannon is one of those artists with an awe-inspiring intensity and an aura about them that just hypnotize the audience every time they appear on screen.

Bahrani provides this amazing pair with brilliant material that elevates their craft and his approach to the narrative as if it was a gripping thriller is clever and compelling. The scene where Shannon’s Carver lectures the now complacent but still naïve Nash with a Mephistophelian monologue about how America doesn’t bail out losers is an instant classic, worthy of the best Scorsese or Mann. The same goes for the intensely escalating climax that hits you like a punch in the gut and moves you to tears without ever shying away for a second from the tension with artificial sentimentalism. This is what great cinema is made of: pure, raw emotional bliss.



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