VENICE — The title treatment for Ramin Bahrani's Venice Competition entry consists of blood red letters on black. Filling the entire screen with blocky all-caps letters and numbers dozens of feet high, we read: 99 HOMES. It looks more like the title treatment for a horror than a drama digging into a moral morass of foreclosure, subsistence level employment, and better paid but more spiritually costly work. As it turns out, it is also a horror movie of sorts. The first shot of the film itself is even a post-mortem scene, as Michael Shannon's predatory realtor Rick Carver -- and how's that for a horror movie name? -- gazes almost impassively at blood dribbling down tacky pink bathroom tiles.
The contrast couldn't be more stark: Shannon in an off-white blazer so sharp it hurts (costume design by Meghan Kasperlik is on point throughout), gold watch glinting and not a hair of his immaculate coiffure out of place, and opposite him the feet of the poor faceless schmo lying just out of shot who has blown his brains out all over a bathroom that until recently he thought belonged to him. Sure, Rick Carver didn't pull the trigger, but we instinctively sense from the power dynamic of the scene that he might as well have done. Carver sees it differently: he didn't force anyone to take out a loan they couldn't afford to repay.
This is one of the film's central anxieties: to what extent are people who overextend their finances based on bad advice responsible for their own fate when economies crash? Or rather, when economies are crashed, by frat boy bankers drunk at the wheel/by the inevitable and unpredictable forces of a global economic weather system/by sinister figures who know they can foster even more division and make even more money in a recession (choose your own adventure depending on preference).
One area where there's little room for ambiguity rears its head in 99 Homes' first fifteen minutes: the brutal process by which repossessions of properties seized by the banks is carried out. We meet Andrew Garfield's construction worker Dennis Nash moments after we're introduced to Carver, and it's immediately apparent that the chasm between them is wide. In a black long sleeved tee and black baseball cap, when we meet him Garfield already looks like he's sporting a blue collar spin on mourning garb.
The deceased takes the form of his profession -- there's not much need for construction workers during a property crisis. Soon, he's answering his own door to Carver and his uniformed heavies, who inform him and his mom (Laura Dern, underused) that they are trespassing on a foreclosed property and must vacate the Orlando family home they've inhabited for years. As a courtesy, they will be given two minutes to collect any particularly essential or valuable items. In the middle of it all, a school bus pulls up and out skips Nash's young son (Noah Lomax), who can't understand why he can't go to his room.
There's no debate about the legality of banks seizing properties: it is legal. There is plenty of room for debate about the causes and consequences of repossession. But there can be very few people who feel at all ambiguous about the heavy-handed methodology by which this process is enacted - it is monstrous. Why two minutes? What purpose can that miserly timeframe possibly serve, other than to further dismay, punish and disorient people already stripped of their dignity? We're automatically on Nash's side as a response to this trauma, regardless of the ins and outs of how he got there.
Having played his first hand using a stacked deck, emotionally speaking, it's to Bahrani's credit that he subsequently manages to lead us through a spectrum of other perspectives as the film progresses. It's a spectrum painted with a broad brush (and highlighted by an extremely insistent score that will irritate fans of subtlety). Bahrani's arguments are laid out as cleanly and simply as an ethics textbook's hypothetical dialogues, but I rather respected that about this exercise. The result is a film that stands a chance of finding a broad audience. A 99% audience, if you like. Yes, there are probably more complex and nuanced ways of tackling this topic, but it's hugely important that a mainstream drama on this subject exists.
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