|Andrew Garfield stars in writer-director Ramin Bahrani's masterpiece 99 Homes.|
If the soul exists, it must have no price. If the soul exists, it must be an essential part of a person. If the soul exists, it must be the most valuable thing one can possess. That is – if the soul exists. The way we often speak of it, the soul is intangible, and being such, we do not have a lot of use for it in our daily lives. Our families cannot eat it, take shelter in it, or survive off it, so its value seems rather negligible against the raw realities of life.
Speaking in a strictly areligious sense, the devil knows this. Maybe the devil is your boss, asking you to sacrifice a part of yourself for the company. Maybe the devil is your spouse, asking you to sacrifice a part of yourself for your family. Maybe the devil is you, and you sacrifice a small part of yourself every time you go against your better judgment or your reason or your ethics. These small trades for money, love, or comfort cost us little on the surface, but if the soul exists and makes you who you are, then every piece you give up is another piece of yourself lost.
In the magnificent legal thriller 99 Homes, from writer-director Ramin Bahrani, Andrew Garfield plays a man who makes a Faustian bargain with the devil he knows, and we stare on breathlessly as he loses himself piece by piece. The suspense comes from watching and wondering how long this man will allow himself to fall apart before he realizes what he has done and tries to put everything back together. It is a shattering, heart-rending experience, and it is one of the best films of the year.
Garfield plays Dennis Nash, who struggles to provide for his mother (Laura Dern) and young son (Noah Lomax). When they can no longer afford to pay the mortgage, they are evicted from their longtime family home and forced to live in a hotel, where many other families have suffered the same fate. Real estate operator Rick Carver, played by Michael Shannon, is in charge of the eviction. Carver makes his money evicting people from their homes and exploiting government and banking loopholes in the wake of the housing market crash.
Nash earns what little money he can working odds-and-ends construction jobs until Carver offers him a deal. Carver will buy the Nash family home if Nash agrees to work for him to pay off the debt. Nash signs off on the deal, and that is how easy it is to make a pact with the devil. For the rest of the film, Nash will descend further and further into the morass and compromise more and more of what he stands for with every transaction until he resembles Carver more than himself.
|Michael Shannon in 99 Homes.|
Garfield and Shannon are excellent as two men with competing loyalties whose interests are briefly aligned. Shannon turns in the kind of work befitting one of the best actors of his generation. He is menacing and pragmatic but just vulnerable enough to suggest how Nash could fall into Carver’s trap. He may be playing the devil, but Shannon’s performance shows us how even the devil cannot do his job without being stained by it.
The true revelation, however, is Garfield, who was so good in 2010’s The Social Network but has been lost down the rabbit hole of superhero movies for the last five years. In fact, 99 Homes is his first non-The Amazing Spider-man movie since The Social Network, and it is a great relief to see Garfield once again with a tremendous role to play. As Nash, he is resolute and determined but beaten down by a system that has no regard for him or his family. Garfield is just 32 years old, but he slides easily into the role of weary family man. His youth works for the film thematically as well and suggests problems of poverty and debt will affect generations to come.
Speaking of youth, there is the film’s co-writer and director. Bahrani is 40 years old and has made six feature films. In 2005, Man Push Cart launched him into the critical consciousness, and after his superb 2009 feature Goodbye Solo, no less than Roger Ebert called him unequivocally “the new great American director.” Bahrani even shows up in Steve James’ Ebert documentary Life Itself, and Ebert gifts him a puzzle once owned by Marilyn Monroe. Though Ebert long championed Bahrani’s work, the puzzle felt like a passing of the torch. Here, Bahrani returns the favor by dedicating his masterpiece to Ebert.
And a masterpiece, it is. The American-born son of Iranian immigrants, Bahrani has specialized in films about the struggle to achieve the American Dream. For the first time though, he turns his focus in 99 Homes to the difficulty in maintaining that dream. This is a film about mostly good people whose lives are destroyed by greed and corruption. Nash is but one of many people who got the home they always dreamed of but could not afford to keep it. The banks preyed on these people from the beginning, and what we are watching as Carver evicts them is the final kill.
Bahrani shows us row after row of homes in the Orlando, Fla., suburbs where the film takes place. Each house represents a family, and many are abandoned. They are not empty because of people like Carver. Carver is an opportunist, but he serves a higher master – the banks, those institutions we were told are too big to fail. Implicit in that oft-trotted-out maxim is the little-discussed fact that Nash and you and I are not too big to fail. In fact, we are too small to matter.
This is the kind of film that should make us angry about the world in which we live. Hopefully, none of us will endure the pain and heartbreak of losing our homes, but statistically, some of us will. Some of us have, and our options are few. Around the midpoint of the film, Carver tells Nash, “America was built by bailing out the winners.” Nash has seen losing and does not want to see it again. He takes Carver’s deal because it is the only one on the table. No other help is on its way. For his son, his mother, and his own dignity, he trades away a part of himself, but if the soul exists, what good to his family is a man without one?
See it? Yes.