With his spiffy tan suits, black-and-blue e-cigarettes, and interchangeable Orange County mansions populated with pampered women, Michael Shannon’s Rick Carver is the spitting image of the evil economic 1% in Ramin Bahrani’s latest hard-left polemic, 99 Homes. Over the past decade, Shannon has been increasingly typecast as either a twitchy weirdo on societal margins or an earnest simpleton, but Bahrani, in a stroke of casting gumption that makes one wonder why he’s the first to make the move, has redirected the actor’s distinctly coiled facial features and natural gift for commanding a room toward a character with genuinely threatening social and economic power. As Rick, a Machiavellian SoCal real estate broker, Shannon doesn’t need a bag of eccentric tics to sell the man’s sociopathy; all he has to do is drop a hard stare from a distance and the ground seems to quake.
The rest of 99 Homes, frankly, shrinks in his presence. Andrew Garfield is the weaselly Dennis Nash, an early victim of Carver’s predatory eviction hunting who, when pressed to come up with the cash to pay his family’s way out of temporary motel slumming, kisses the snake that bit him by taking a gig as Carver’s accessory. The realtor’s inexplicably lawful but highly amoral practice—which involves actively seeking out properties exposing even the slightest of living code violations and bullishly terminating their owners’ leases to make way for higher-paying newcomers—is cold gangster-movie stuff, and Bahrani conceives of Dennis’s involvement in the business as an initiation into a mafia dynasty. Carver goes right for his employee’s sweet spot in proposing a deal centered on lifting the Nash family out of economic hardship, and does so not in the clinical space of an office, but in the faux-intimacy of his waterside palace. He also offers his new accomplice a handgun.
Naturally, the politically minded Bahrani has his sights on moralizing, not on probing the seediest depths of the central parasitic relationship, so while 99 Homes could have shaded waywardly into fairy tale (Shannon the Big Bad Wolf to Garfield’s Little Pig), instead it stays firmly planted in social realism. In realizing this veiled gangster yarn, Bahrani places emphasis not on the ghastly mastermind, but on the naïve underling gradually comprehending the full extent of his boss’s Darwinian extremity, the righteous intention being to awaken the audience, simultaneously with Dennis, to the cruel machinations underlying the taken-for-granted neutrality of residential space. But, and notwithstanding Garfield’s impressive work selling his character’s profound gullibility, this arc isn’t particularly illuminating, the cumulative unease of a series of scenes of Dennis awkwardly finding himself on the other side of the eviction procedure never matching the sheer force of Carver’s own handling of the same devastating spectacle. We’re seeing the messy outgrowths of evil, not the source of the evil itself.
Still, 99 Homes’s fundamental schematics and overly neat symmetries aren’t a dealbreaker. Bahrani’s talent for orchestrating sequences of tightly wound tension is in full bloom here, as is his complementary knack for quieter grace notes. Evidence of the former comes in one karmic explosion of volatility on the motel grounds where Dennis shares residence with some of the casualties of his new vocation, as well as in a clincher of a final scene that brings to a boiling point another seemingly peripheral conflict deftly weaved into the plot. Bahrani’s basically a functional formalist, so what he lacks in visual bravura he makes up for with furious cross-cutting between actors incited to various emotional extremes. At the same time, he also knows when to slow down and let a single, seemingly innocuous line delivered in close-up hover portentously in the air. Hence a key moment that lingers in the memory as a reinforcement of the movie’s caustic downward spiral: an inebriated Carver, in a deceptive pose of relaxation on his dock at night, muttering ominously to Dennis, “Watch out for the gators, they don’t sleep.”