A well-made western is fun as well as satisfying because the formula is one we’re familiar with, and we want that kind of movie experience. Directed by Ramin Bahrani, from a script he co-wrote with Amir Naderi, 99 Homes is not a western; it takes place in contemporary Florida. Instead of embattled, poor farmers (the good guys) being attacked by rich cattle barons (the bad guys), we have struggling families being evicted from their homes by bankers who will resell them for a profit. But the worst of them, Rick Carver, played by Michael Shannon (black hat), gets rich by robbing from the evicted families and the bankers. He’s a PC kind of crook; he’ll take anybody’s money.
We first meet good guy Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) as he is being evicted from his home, along with his mother (Laura Dern) and his 12-year-old son (Noah Lomax). After the final papers are served, Carver and his team arrive. They move all the personal possessions in the house to the front lawn so that Dennis and his family can transport everything to a motel that, coincidentally, contains dozens more of Carver’s evictees. It doesn’t take long for Dennis to see he’s in a no-win situation. He needs cash to feed his family, and he steps right up to Carver for a job as a construction worker. Carver senses real ambition and strength in Dennis, and soon is giving him more work. It’s clear that Carver sees the makings of a personal “go-to guy” in him, a right hand man that he can groom into being as ruthless as himself, although not one he would ever turn his back on.
Along the way to a rousing conclusion, the film deals out a pretty cynical view of Florida real estate law. More than once a character says the “system is rigged” so that crafty operators like Carver can exploit struggling families who can’t make the mortgage payments in a suddenly dead job market. We see how a basically decent guy like Dennis can be corrupted, especially if he has skills that can be used by profiteers. Dennis is a fast learner, and suspense is built on whether he will ever be able to redeem himself.
C’mon, you know that he will. That’s what heroes are supposed to do. Still, Bahrani knows how to deliver maximum drama from the well-contrived setup. Especially effective is Laura Dern, who, in a crucial scene, registers revulsion at her son’s assisting in the evictions, as well as fear for her family’s safety after Dennis is physically attacked by a man who lost his home (this actor, Jeff Pope, would frighten anyone into fleeing the state). Garfield, too, registers strongly in a difficult role. Dennis’ conversion from heartless eviction facilitator to just a decent guy rediscovering his true nature is unstrained and suitably inspiring.
But, as anyone who’s read the reviews knows, the film belongs to Michael Shannon, who has his best role in years. The film opens with an eviction, which Shannon calmly but commandingly directs like a maestro at the podium; he sets a rhythm that drives the entire film. And that rhythm is fast and propulsive. Bahrani excels in moving his actors the way real people move in life, even in the most heated action, a skill that was well used by the late, usually underrated Tony Scott.
Fast and entertaining as the story is, however, Carver’s character is incomplete. Unlike Gordon Gekko, whose need for money and power was almost sexual (and, to a lot of women, very sexy) in Michael Douglas’ portrayal, Carver seems only obsessed and under strain. His greed is less of appetite than anxiety and, perhaps, denial. Why, you wonder, does he give Dennis so much responsibility, so quickly, without thinking of the risk? The question is highlighted in the one scene that doesn’t work, when the two men have a drunken heart-to-heart by the pool after a party hosted by Carver. First off, Shannon can’t do overaged frat-boy partying to save his life; it comes out like gastric pain. But worse, the phony bonding with Dennis lets a suggestion of homo-eroticism sneak in, and just as quickly vanish. Naturally, the formula can’t tolerate this, and even a hint of the hero’s possible reciprocation would be fatal. So the question of Carver’s unexplained attachment to Dennis is left unanswered. At any rate, the formula takes over again quickly, leading to the obligatory triumph of good over evil, most fittingly with an exciting climactic gunfight.
But one final word about the formula. Actually two words: cop-out. With westerns gone, the formula survives, as here, in courtroom battles. The story is really about how the law abuses the little guy, and the hero – usually a lawyer, with Dennis being an exception – triumphs against the odds in a “rigged” system. But somehow, the triumph never even puts a dent in that system, which purrs along mercilessly. The courtroom scenes in the film are so front-loaded to reward exploiters like Carver that you know the hero can expect no help from the law. That is why the formula needs the all-powerful “smoking gun” that somehow eludes the bad guy until the hero whips it out. As with John Travolta’s obsessed attorney in A Class Action, Dennis provides the “smoking gun” that brings down Carver. But the device only works because it reveals an actual crime, which is something the system can’t ignore. “Rigged” or not, it seems the system still responds when the hero gives it no other choice. The real moral shown by Carver’s downfall is not that the system was rigged, but that it wasn’t rigged enough.
IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: “Story in Film” is merging into my new website, http://www.filmfestsalon.com. New blogs will appear here, for the time being, but the new site will have many more features. Check out my report on this year’s New York Film Festival. And, as always, please send comments.