Having personally seen the depravity of America’s subprime mortgage crisis, the director has little optimism about the country’s future, writes Max Chalmers.
In 2012, Ramin Bahrani travelled to Florida to help kick Americans out of their homes.
New York based, Bahrani had become fascinated by the devastating subprime mortgage crisis which crippled the global economy and, at its peak, saw 2.9 million homes foreclosed in a single year. He read articles by the hundreds, wolfed down books, and considered the films and documentaries made on the subject.
But still, he felt, part of the story was missing. What had happened to the people on the ground? What was it like to be a middle-class family thrown out on the street, or a real estate agent arriving at the door to deliver their fate?
And that’s how the decorated film director ended up in Florida.
Housing is an integral symbol of America’s identity and in his new film 99 Homes Bahrani uses it as the backdrop to a personal drama that hints at a broader critique.
An evenly paced thriller, the film follows Dennis Nash (played by Andrew Garfield) and Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), whose lives intertwine when Carver evicts Nash from his home after a foreclosure.
Forced to choose between poverty and ethically suspect employment, Nash starts working for Carver. The job turns out to entail more than the already questionable task of evicting people from their homes: Carver has found a way to scam the US government. The misfortune of others has turned into a thriving personal enterprise.
In a morally anarchic America, in which Donald Trump is a serious political consideration, clear calculation of good and bad have been forgone. The opportunist and the sentimentalist are hardly distinguishable.
To borrow Carver’s blunt terminology, you’re either a loser or a winner. Most lose, but those who win can do it big.
Through Nash and Carver’s relationship the film develops a central moral question: are the individuals winning a rigged game really to blame for playing?
Despite appearing to be a straightforward (and at times slightly two dimensional) comment on contemporary America, Bahrani holds back from giving the film an overtly political sting.
“I don’t want to be a preacher delivering a sermon and I don’t have answers or a specific message,” he says. “I can just tell you what interests me. How did the world get turned upside down financially?”
That’s what was on the director’s mind when he travelled to Florida in 2012 and 2013, where he rode along with (real) real estate agents as they travelled from one white picket fence to the next, bumping people from their properties. The trough of the Global Financial Crisis crisis may have passed, but in suburbs across America the evictions continue.
Many of the swindles and scenes of devastation Bahrani witnessed went into the film – including the fact real estate agents in the area are now carrying concealed weapons lest desperate families refuse to cede their homes peacefully.
“I didn’t make them up, those things are real,” he says. “If you want to cheat the US government or the banks I could tell you how.”
On one occasion, Bahrani and an agent knocked on a door only to be met by an elderly man suffering deep dementia. They tried to explain his house had been foreclosed. He had no idea what was going on.
Bahrani also travelled to the state’s courts, where judges have been handing down “rocket docket” decisions, rapidly rejecting thousands of applications by people desperate to hold on to their homes.
Despite the cruelty and desperation of those left to live in roadside motels, Bahrani says many on the other side of the process felt crushed and conflicted too. The film includes a number of non-professional actors.
“There are people in the movie who are real; the sheriff is a real person, he actually does evictions, he’s done them many times,” says Bahrani.
Seeing that side of the story might explain why the touted director declines to endorse either the cynical opportunism of Carver or the moral sentimentality of Nash.
“I can’t argue with either position,” says Bahrani. “They both make sense to me.”
On the surface this film presents a critique of contemporary American capitalism and inequality. Those are things the director cares about, and in our conversation he rails against the repeal of sensible regulation designed to temper the excesses of the market. He fears the consequences of dividing the nation into losers and winners, and at times borrows the language of Occupy Wall Street.
He describes 99 Homes as a film about a deal with the devil, and it remains an adequate metaphor for the America he portrays: regardless of the decision you make you still end up in hell.
Speaking to Bahrani and watching his film you get the impression he has used this time in American history as a setting for a drama, rather than developed a drama to comment on the setting.
Either way, it’s not a place he is optimistic about.
“I don’t think anything has changed [since the crash],” he says. “I think it’s the same. In terms of economic crashes I think things are just going to get worse. Sorry to be a downer.”
As our brief phone conversation comes to an end the director notes many have compared Carver to Trump.
“I’d really like Donald Trump to watch the film,” he says.
A brilliant performance from Shannon in particular means the film is well worth a visit, even if you’re not a plutocratic property mogul.
David Stratton describes 99 Homes as “Bahrani’s most accomplished film to date.” It also has a four and a half star rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
99 Homes opens in Australia on November 19.
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