The Distancer: Saturday, August 1, 2020

DAY 142: 99 Homes

Happy (!?) August (?!) everyone!

Finally, a GIF for proper mask technique!

Realized that yesterday I neglected to provide a weekly new releases update! Whoops! If you’re the kind of person who think you would like a documentary about ACLU lawyers during the Trump administration, then chances are you would like the new film The Fight. It’s an inspiring watch, even if it does feel as dutiful as a company’s annual report. And if you want something that’s a little bit more like a puzzle box, I highly recommend A Girl Missing, which is available through Film at Lincoln Center’s Virtual Cinema. Japanese director Kôji Fukada is quickly becoming one of the most exciting and riveting directors on the world stage to me.

I don’t know who needs to hear this (apart from myself, of course, and maybe you do too), but … The Atlantic had a really great piece this week with a headline we should all consider: “Why Success Won’t Make You Happy.”

Perhaps you were fortunate enough to receive a paycheck yesterday at the end of the month. If you have a little to spare, why not pay it forward to a group like New Story, a charity which is working to fight homelessness? Especially as many families potentially face eviction with extended unemployment benefits expiring, this could be crucial lifeline for many Americans.

Support New Story

Now, what you came for…

DAY 142: 99 Homes (available for free on Crackle)

I’ve been banging the drum for 99 Homes since I saw one of the first screenings at 2014’s Telluride Film Festival. Given that I discovered its streaming availability, and that evictions are likely to become a trending topic once again, I’m recommending it largely using the text from my review at the time. I’ve revisited the film a number of times since then and can confirm the film, especially Andrew Garfield’s achingly humanistic lead performance, still holds up.

In 2002, President George W. Bush declared, “Here in America, if you own a home, you’re realizing the American Dream.”  Six years later, that unbridled spirit of homeownership at all costs led to a bubble of subprime mortgages bursting and contributing to the tanking of the nation’s economy.  This time of panic and crisis brought about pain for many hard-working Americans, and it also provides the foundation for writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s gripping look into the dark heart of capitalism, 99 Homes.

Back in 2009, George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham arrived on screens to inform blue-collar workers they were out of a job in Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air. A similar task falls to Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash, the protagonist of 99 Homes, who enforces evictions in working-class Florida neighborhoods.  Bingham, however, could stay detached from the plight of the newly unemployed; Dennis can receive no such comfort. Before becoming the man doing the evicting, he and his family were the evicted.

In order to provide for his son Connor and mother Lynn (Laura Dern), Dennis turns to the very person responsible for putting them in dire economic straits: the vile, e-cigarette smoking realtor Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). While everyone suffers, his business booms, and Dennis is willing to sell his soul to his persecutor if it means putting food on the table. Sure, he shares in some of the profits. But, at the end of the day, Dennis heads back to the same kind of cheap motel to which he banishes countless other families.

Through Dennis, Bahrani brilliantly illustrates the sociological concept of false consciousness. He buys into Carver’s policies and slowly deludes himself into believing he is of a higher class standing. Carver, an unabashed believer that America only bails out winners like himself, takes the spoils and leaves workers like Dennis with the scraps. Advancing out of their precarious position is merely an illusion.

If this sounds pessimistic, Bahrani earns the right with his intellectual depth. 99 Homes also wisely focuses on characters whose very livelihoods are in jeopardy because of the financial crisis.  Most films that had tried to grapple with the effects of the recession prior to Bahrani – The Company Men, Margin Call, Arbitrage, Blue Jasmine – only dared to assume the perspective of the upper-class descending to the middle-class. Dennis and his family are not worrying about losing the Porsche or selling off the jewelry. If they descend any lower, it is outright poverty and destitution.

Stemming from this standpoint, the stakes feel appropriately extreme enough both to feel deeply and contemplate thoroughly. Bahrani often scores the film with tense, thriller-like music, and it works exceptionally well. If the lives hanging in the balance and the severity of the moral compromises being made do not merit an increasing heart rate, nothing does.

If the film feels exaggerated and over the top, the financial crisis was an absolute nightmare for many families that felt borderline apocalyptic, so grandiosity is justifiable. If it feels like a preachy morality play, at least Bahrani has his heart and mind in the right place. He understands that the home is a symbol of heritage, inheritance, legacy, and personal pride.

Yet 99 Homes communicates something more important. The home itself is not the American Dream. It is the well-being of the people inside of the home.

Be good to yourselves and to each other,

See past recommendations