Ramin Bahrani is that rare dramatist who understands street-level economics. Raised in North Carolina and educated at Columbia University, the Iranian-American filmmaker made his feature debut with Man Push Cart (2005), the story of a Pakistani immigrant who scrapes through life selling bagels from a cart in midtown Manhattan. Chop Shop (2007), his second feature, followed a 12-year-old Puerto Rican orphan and his older sister as they try to pull together a life for themselves amid the auto garages and scrapyards of Queens. Now there’s Bahrani’s extraordinary new drama, 99 Homes, which takes on the subprime mortgage meltdown of 2008 with its tale of a young man who loses his home in a foreclosure and, desperate for work, becomes the reluctant protege of the very same real estate shark who turned him out. Few other dramas have dared to address the housing bubble that ruined so many Americans, and none with the sense of personal immediacy, of real lives affected, that Bahrani brings to his story.
In some respects 99 Homes reminded me of Wall Street (1987), Oliver Stone’s much-discussed drama about Reagan-era buccaneers. Both movies focus on a driven young man who falls under the spell of a smooth-talking SOB and, slowly but surely, surrenders his soul. “Greed is good,” proclaims Gordon Gekko, the high-rolling investment broker of Wall Street; a poster for 99 Homes declares, “Greed is the only game in town.” There’s a big difference, though. Wall Street transpires mainly in penthouses and boardrooms, its manicured traders barking orders into phones and glaring at computer monitors; the little people being screwed as stocks rise and fall rarely register as more than an abstraction. In 99 Homes those people are seen and heard, trembling at their doorsteps and offering their paper-thin defenses as the police prepare to cast them and their belongings to the curb.
These encounters are staged with the sort of knowing detail that suggests the writer has seen it all go down himself. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a young construction worker in Orlando, lives in a modest single-family home with his mother (Laura Dern) and school-age son (Noah Lomax), but the real estate crash has put them in a bad way, and Nash has just lost their home in foreclosure court (“I have 40,000 cases backed up behind this one,” the judge tells him). Dennis searches in vain for a pro bono lawyer who will handle his appeal, and his mother assures him it will all work out. But then one afternoon the police are at their door, along with dead-eyed real estate agent Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). “The time has come, you have to leave the property,” Carver explains. Nash and his mother have two minutes to pack up their personal belongings and leave. Workmen sweep in and change the door locks. Before long Carver’s crew has dragged all their furniture out onto the front lawn; the agent tells Nash he’s got 24 hours to remove the stuff or it’s gone. “Good luck,” he adds politely as he’s walking toward his car.
Carver knows what it’s like to get screwed by the system while trying to earn an honest living: his father, a roofer, fell off a townhouse and was dropped by his insurance company. Carver started out as a real estate agent, putting people into homes, before the subprime scandal made it more profitable to flip houses instead. “America doesn’t bail out the losers,” Carver reminds Nash in a soliloquy reminiscent of Gordon Gekko’s famous “greed is good” lecture. “America was built by bailing out winners, by rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners. . . . Only one in a hundred’s gonna get on that ark.” Carver feels for the losers, but he’s not going to join them. He’s been stalked by people he evicted, and one person tried to run him off the road; when Nash asks him if his success has been worth the grief, Carver replies, “As opposed to what?”
That’s the question Nash is left to answer as he gets sucked into Carver’s business. Desperate to reclaim his family home, Nash accepts a few hundred bucks from Carver to clean up a trashed home, and before long he’s become Carver’s right-hand man, pocketing bigger and bigger checks to do his dirty work. Bahrani has mastered the nuts and bolts of home foreclosure and the predatory, even illegal tactics that can fatten a broker’s wallet. One of Nash’s primary duties is approaching owners in trouble with an exploitative “cash-for-keys” offer of $3,500 if they will vacate and clean the premises before their scheduled eviction. Carver sends Nash around to his properties to remove the outdoor AC units and any pool pumps and snap pictures of the disconnected wires on his phone so Carver can claim the owners stole them and bill Fannie Mae. Nash gets a cut of this action, and Carver is pleased to learn that he’s keeping more money for himself and shorting the guys who help him out. Eventually Nash finds himself on the other side of the fateful door knock, evicting a helpless, confused old man with nowhere to go but the local Red Cross center.
In addition to being one of the year’s best movies, 99 Homes also represents Bahrani’s first successful attempt to navigate the commercial mainstream—like the film’s protagonist, he’s had to weigh the cost of dancing with the devil. Having made three critically acclaimed low-budget features, which were compared to Italian neorealism for their vivid images of the poor and their surroundings, Bahrani took a stab at working with big-name actors on a more conventional political parable: At Any Price (2012), starring Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid as heartland farmers squeezed by big agriculture, flopped with critics and moviegoers alike. But this time Bahrani has found a story whose searing emotion can’t be shaken off so easily. 99 Homes is both a peerless entertainment and a cri di coeur against a financial system that preyed on the weakest Americans. It never lets you forget that the practice euphemistically referred to as “flushing out bad loans” really meant flushing people down the toilet. v