(Ramin Bahrani, 2014)
99 Homes isn't really a thriller, although it feels like one from the very first scene. Bahrani establishes a tense atmosphere with an opening crawl away from a dead man sitting in his bathroom, the rifle he used to end his own life in his hands, blood splatters on the wall, and through the house from which he was being evicted. Policemen move around, his wife and children wail as he is stretchered off. And in the middle of it all is Michael Shannon's Rick Carver, a real estate agent and developer who was the one evicting the man on behalf of the band which now owned his property. Bahrani follows him outside, through an angry phone call and a sarcastic, devastating exchange with a coroner, all of it soundtracked by a blunt, electronic rhythm. A feeling of dread has arrived, fully-formed, with this film. It never really lessens.
We see a little of Carver's life and business before he is evicting Nash (Andrew Garfield) from the family home where he lives with his mother and young son. Nash is a roofer, and in the 2008 of the film, the construction business has just collapsed, leaving him without a viable income. He and his family end up living in a motel after a horribly upsetting eviction. But he goes looking for Carver, believing some tools stolen, and instead, ends up working for him. Carver, impressed by his competence and initiative, promotes him rapidly, and soon it is Nash himself raking in money and evicting baffled families.
So 99 Homes is a deal-with-the-devil story, focused intently and fascinatingly on real estate chicanery in the world after the financial collapse of 2008. We see the details of the scams Carver and Nash run, and hear many of Carver's justifications. But Bahrani - a director whose films have always examined the reality of the American dream - ensures that we don't miss the other side of the equation. From the raw agony of Nash's mother and son when they lose their home, to the pitiful state of an elderly widower with nowhere to go and no family to call, this film is furiously moving about the human cost of the situation and furiously angry about the reasons for it.
The dread that settles in the opening scene does come to a head, but before that we get the spectacle of a terrific Garfield and a monstrous Shannon battling for the soul of the film. Both excel, and Bahrani's character doesn't miss a nuance. He is a director building a strong and undervalued body of work, and this may well be his best film yet.