Right up into the 1960s, the Hays Code demanded that criminals in American movies face punishment by the final reel, a stricture that, however well-intentioned, served to propagate our national myth: that the only route to success is hard work and decency. Crime still doesn't pay, exactly, onscreen — the code is dead, but onscreen crooks still tend to get busted just before the end credits. It's in the movies' middles, though, that something has changed. The lawbreaking life has come to look impossibly alluring: Consider the long vogue of the Scarface T-shirt or the orgies The Wolf of Wall Street blasted into your face like confetti from a cannon.
Nobody will mistake Ramin Bahrani's superbly acted hard-times morality play 99 Homes for betraying the Hays ideal. Every shot, every beat, in this tale of an Orlando real estate monster (Michael Shannon) profiting off
The film is more closing argument than
Yet it's still a film of stature and power, one whose sympathies are with the victims. An early scene, a raw long take, shows us Shannon's hard-hearted vulture leading the cops (who call him "boss") in the eviction of the family of Garfield's nice-guy construction worker. The confrontation is ugly, grueling, compelling in its detailed nastiness. It's scripted with circling dialogue that sounds as if the screenwriters (Bahrani and Amir Naderi) simply transcribed actual evictions: Carver and the cops, old pros, stick to their brusque eviction script, play-acting that giving the family two minutes to clear out some valuables is a kindness. In response, the family — including Laura Dern as Nash's mother — spins out helpless promises and furious insistences: There's been a mistake; come back after we talk to our lawyers; you're trespassing; and — finally, desperately — but this is our home.
Later, Nash, seeing no other way to raise the money to buy back the house, oversees evictions himself as Carver's right-hand man. Bahrani is relentless in pushing us into these situations, smartly varying the settings and victims but always revealing the same messy drama, the same confounded disbelief crashing against authoritative bluntness. Garfield is excellent in these scenes, making clear in each moment Nash's pain, kindness, and self-loathing. You catch Nash steeling himself, swallowing back the heat in his throat, reminding himself of the family-first principle that has made him what he hates.
The rawness of the
It's Nash's willfulness — and command over his gag reflex — that impresses Carver. Shannon dominates the film, but this isn't one of his unknowable
Inevitably, Carver tasks Nash with one crime too many, and the wrap-up is as tense and aching as it is too precise in its lit-class symmetries. What's most potent and memorable here isn't that ending, which reminds us that crime pays only for a while, nor the overcooked lines where Dern voices the audience's outrage at what Nash has gotten into. Instead, it's that lack of sensuality, that primness that feels a little wrong as the movie unfolds but makes perfect sense afterward: Bastards like Carver do it not because they're seduced but because it's the only way they can feel they're winning.
Starring Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern, Tim Guinee, and Noah Lomax. Directed and edited by Ramin Bahrani. Written by Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi. 112 minutes. Rated R.