Ramin Bahrani’s sixth feature 99 Homes is a tense thriller and a rally cry for justice in the rush for wealth gained from others’ misfortune, writes Ian Haydn Smith.
Few contemporary American directors are as concerned with giving a voice to the dispossessed – socially, economically or racially – as Ramin Bahrani. His films have focused on the immigrant experience (Strangers, Man Push Cart), adapting to life within close-knit communities (Chop Shop), ageing and being forgotten in the world (Goodbye Solo), and the impact of corporate greed on rural life (At Any Price). 99 Homes finds Bahrani focussing on the disastrous events that followed the economic meltdown in 2008. However, rather than look at the impact on the wealthy elite as J.C. Chandor did in Margin Call, or Michael Lewis has in his spate of alarming investigations into the cogs that drive the world’s economic engine, 99 Homes hones in on the people at the bottom – those who have lost everything and the minority that has ruthlessly exploited them. With its powerhouse score and driving narrative, the film also witnesses a shift in Bahrani’s directorial style.
“Chop Shop had a forceful nature to it,” Bahrani says of his third feature. “But this movie ramps up the aggression.” The shift in tone is present from 99 Homes’ shocking opening sequence. Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a suave realtor and the film’s antagonist, walks around the house of a home he has taken possession of after a family have failed to keep up with their bank repayments, seemingly unconcerned by the body of a man who has just killed himself.
“I was wondering how the whole world turned upside down economically,” Bahrani comments, “and it came down to the economic crisis.” That became the beginning of his investigation, which ultimately led to the story behind 99 Homes. “I started reading and researching out of my home in Brooklyn before venturing out. There were four states that were the epicentres of this disaster. One of them was Florida. So I travelled down there to investigate. The story illuminated itself very quickly. I met with Lynne Simoniak, a fraud attorney who had led a law suit on behalf of the government against the banks, to the tune of $100 million. She was a lynchpin in a lot of the housing crises. She uncovered robo-signing and all the fraudulent paperwork – the kind you see in the film.”
From there, Bahrani delved deeper into the intricacies of the various operations of property developers, leading to a stark and profoundly disturbing revelation. “I went with Lynne into the Rocket Dockets – the foreclosure courts. They’re called that because it takes 60 seconds to decide your fate. Then I met a lot of real estate brokers. Every one I encountered carried a gun, which was startling. I had read about the corruption, but actually meeting the brokers and going door-to-door, I realised how many scams there were. It wasn’t just Fannie, Freddie and the big banks that were cheating the world and getting away with it. It was all the way down the chain, to the very bottom. That’s when I realised that this wasn’t a social drama, but a thriller – a Faustian, deal with the devil narrative. 99 Homes was going to be a genre film – something I hadn’t made before – albeit combined with the issues that appear in my previous work.”
One of the most disquieting aspects of Bahrani’s film is what happens to the families after they are evicted from their homes. “I visited all the motels that exist alongside 142, which is the highway that leads directly to Disneyworld. So, at one end you have this theme park and at the other these shadows, motels housing the dispossessed. Gangbangers, migrant workers, prostitutes and very ordinary middle class families all live side-by-side in these places. You only have to follow the route of the yellow school buses to get to them. Whereas they once only dropped kids off at their homes in the suburbs, they now have stops outside these motels where families have been forced to live.”
The film’s narrative structure bears some resemblance with Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, but whereas that film couldn’t help but be enamoured by Michael Douglas’ Wall Street shark, Gordon Gekko, Rick is a very different beast. “He’s loosely based on a number of characters,” Bahrani says. “In particular, there was one that Michael [Shannon] went to see. But beyond that the character is really down to Michael. I think he’s one of the best actors at work right now and I think he’s done something really special with this film. He feels the same. He talks about 99 Homes and Take Shelter as the work he’s most proud of.”
“I went to meet him a few summers ago, when he was at home in Brooklyn. He had spent a lot of time out and about with his two daughters, and he had this tan and blond wisp in his hair. Looking at him then, I wondered why he hadn’t been cast as a more charming character in films. So when he took the role I went about re-writing it to suit this image, giving him more seductive, sarcastic, darkly funny lines.”
Shannon’s approach to his character was different to Andrew Garfield, who plays the evicted construction worker who crosses a moral and ethical divide to work with Rick in order to earn the money to buy back his family home. “Mike and Andrew had contrasting acting styles. Mike doesn’t like improvising but he’s so good at it. And his approach was a stark contrast to Andrew. He’s much looser – more keen to find the character take-by-take. Mike’s like a bulldog. He knows exactly what he wants to do. So those different approaches created a lot of sparks, in the same way that their characters are different.”
As for Rick’s role within the narrative, the bad guy who profits from the poor choices and suffering of others, Bahrani is unequivocal: “Rick is a product of the system. That’s all. The real villain in the movie is the system. That’s what’s caused all this.”
99 Homes is out at Curzon Cinemas on Friday 25 September.