Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Ramin Bahrani | 99 Homes

in the grip of the python
by Douglas Messerli

Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi, screenplay, based on a sotry by Ramin Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi), Ramin Bahrani (director) 99 Homes / 2015 (general US release)

The dilemmas portrayed in Ramin Bahrani’s 2015 film, 99 Homes, are not precisely tragic events, although the work begins with a suicide. Rather, Bahrani’s film slowly uncoils, along its characters’ lives, like a python seeking to slowly strangle each of them to death. And like the python’s grip, the more these figures struggle, the more deeply they are trapped within the destroyer’s grip.

The “destroyer” here, working in conjunction with the banks and the US government, is Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a seemingly slimy house “flipper,” who forecloses on houses whose owners have failed to pay on their mortgages. Using two hired cops and a team of brutes, he evicts families, demanding the tenants leave their home immediately, with only three moments to grab whatever they can scoop up, before his men remove all the family’s beloved possessions into the street. If things get violent, as they sometimes do, he has an ankle gun, the two “hired” cops, and a phone on speed-dial to the local police. The more the family argues, the less time they have to collect their trinkets and to plan for their new lives.
     Carver, having begun his life as a real estate agent, has quickly come to see that the real money lies not in helping people to find their dream house, but in helping himself to the remnants of what their unaffordable dreams have cost them. And in that sense, he stands at the reverse end of the American Dream. Yet Carver, having been able over the years to justify his dirty doings, has long since ceased even believing that society is democratic, that if you work hard and do good you will receive your just award. Set sometime during the huge American economic downturn of the first decade of this century, the events of this film only prove to Carver that only those who are smart enough to grab hold of what others can’t afford, allows for survival. In his cynical view of the world, it is he who is on the side of the law, while the others have simply been criminal in their abuse of their own lives and loved ones.
     We quickly are forced to look, however, from the other side of the lens, as we follow a good, if already broken family, trying to go about their lives. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a skillful construction worker who, working on a new house, is told to go home because the would-be owners have been unable to obtain their loan. Times are bad, and new jobs are not to be easily found. Living with his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and his child, Connor (Noah Lomax)—whose mother’s absence is never fully explained—Dennis and his family are suddenly unable to pay their mortgage, and despite their delusion that they may have 30 more days before the house, in which they have lived all their lives, will be repossessed, are forced by Carver’s tactics to immediately move to a run-down motel, filled by people just like themselves, with no future. Their sudden descent from good, middle-class folk to American outsiders, just a step up from the Oakies of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, is so painful that it is difficult to watch.
     Even though this family manages to gather most of their possessions, Dennis discovers that some of his most important tools—necessary if he is ever to return to work—have been stolen by one of Carver’s men, and goes to Carver’s offices to confront him. He is unable to retrieve his tools, but there again encounters the real estate dealer, who offers him a day job to help clean up a house whose tenants, in anger, have backed up the sewage, literally, leaving a ring of shit inside their abandoned home. It is obviously the most disgusting job one might imagine, yet Dennis is so desperate that he takes on the task.
     Within days, the skillful charmer, clearly in league with the devil himself, has been able to convince Dennis to join his workers, stealing air conditioners and pool cleaners from empty houses to resell them to his clients before they can move in. Dennis does such a good job, he quickly finds himself doing his own evictions. Although it is clear that he hates the task, he is being paid such a good amount, and he is so determined to restore his family home, that he swallows all pride and does Carver’s bidding.

      However, he cannot come to tell his own family where the money is coming from—even though he is soon able to buy back their house, with the caveat that he cannot move in for three weeks. While they are still living in the motel, however, a man and his family, whom he has evicted arrives at the motel, recognizing him, and, observing the man’s violent anger, Dennis’ son and mother suddenly perceive the truth, despite his continued attempts to cover up.

      Even with this new terrifying development, Dennis is unable to quit his now hateful job. Like a punk version of Donald Trump, Carver has so convinced his “apprentice” that everyone who doesn’t succeed in this manner is a “loser.” When Dennis explains that he must get his family out of the motel, but is legally unable yet to move to their old home, Carver tries to consul him not to be sentimental of homes: “They’re just boxes,” he argues. Buy another home, two other homes, he cautions. Forget about the “family” home.
       Although his inability to comprehend the sentiment so many families attach to their homes, in the larger sense, he is right. The real problem for Dennis does not truly concern his family domocile—he does indeed buy another home for his loved ones—but that he has not been able to be honest about his moral abnegation. Taking them to their “new,” far more luxurious home cannot assuage their own disappointment in him, and grandmother and son arrange to live with Lynn’s brother in Tampa rather than stay with Dennis.
      Carver, who now truly believes he controls the young former carpenter, now involved in a grand real estate plot, attempts to squelch a lawsuit by illegally placing a missing document in the original file. The family suing is one that Dennis has met, early on, in the courthouse, and whom he has recently warned of eviction. Finally, coming to the moral low-point of his life, Dennis delays in handing over the fraudulent file to the corrupt court clerk. At the last moment, however, the waiting clerk spots him, pulling the envelope from Dennis’ hands, allowing the judge to maintain that since the document is now in the file, the family has no case.
      As if testing Dennis, Carver demands that he join him for the actual eviction; arriving at the home, however, it becomes apparent that the former owner, brandishing a rifle, has holed up inside with his family, determined to defend is little domain. The police arrive and a stand-off with assuredly violent consequences seems inevitable. 
      To save the day, Dennis dares the dangerous shooter, moving directly toward him to explain that indeed the house does legally belong to the family, since he has placed a fraudulent document into the file.

       Until this point, Bahrani’s film has been a powerful neo-realist work somewhat in the manner of David Mament (but without the stagey dialogue of the playwright), and even closer to the brilliant Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (yet without their humor and grace). But suddenly 99 Homes switches into a slightly sentimental and certainly murky tale. Dennis, for speaking the truth, seems to be awarded the appreciation even of Carver, as he is carted off by the police for the criminal act to which he just confessed; Carver, on the other hand, appears to be assured by the police that he is off the hook. Has Dennis simply gone to prison to save Carver’s back? Has Carver suddenly realized the error of his ways? Surely even the would-be violent acquaintance, despite having been returned the ownership of his house, will also be spending some time in jail. In short, the moral ground which Bahrani has attempted to restore is still so shaky that we can’t be sure that anyone has been saved. We can only imagine that Carver, with his close governmental relationships, will soon be back to threaten the unfortunate homeowners who have no other recourse.

Los Angeles, October 6, 2015

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