Thursday, August 6, 2015
MIFF Session #5: 99 HOMES
Across town at the courts a young construction worker, Dennis Nash is losing his house to the bank, his pleas for leniency no more effective than if he cleared his throat. Days later he meets Ric Carver, backed by the sheriff's officers and a gang of ragtags who are there to clear the house of everything that doesn't come with it. Dennis and his mother make increasingly futile arguments until Carver shuts them down and they comply, the uniforms following them into their rooms to supervise their panicked gathering of valuables. Then they're on the kerb as the gang moves in and clears the house. Next stop motel. The one they choose is peopled by fellow evictees. Welcome to the housing collapse. Dennis goes to Carver's office to confront one of the gang about the theft of his tradie's tools. Carver stops the violence before it gets too messy and offers Dennis a job.
From this point we back Dennis as he progresses from literal shit-shoveller to card carrying associate as Carver schools him in the ways of the housing market. It is dirty and scam heavy but it is lucrative. Dennis goes through Maslow's pyramid of drive reduction, getting work, the means to return to the house he lost and all the way up to self-actualisation. Well, that last bit is stymied. His seduction by Carver's streamlined evangel of self-service means that he is on track to corrupt himself so certainly that he might never emerge from its ethical fog. He needs a test. Like all life's tests it gets him before he's ready and cuts into his nerves.
This is an uncomfortable film. It's not uncomfortable in an anti-narrative dogmatic Godard way. It's uncomfortable because it lets us feel the voiding panic of unstoppable dispossession repeatedly. The fear, the anger, the nauseating drain of the power we like to think we have over our circumstances and the denial we assume we're above until it's us. This is what we are thinking after we rejoice at Dennis' every step up the ladder.
This is inner conflict and, as such, it's a tool in every screen writer's bag. The difference between it working and seeming like a tool is in application and the take-up of performance. Dennis, taking the devil's shilling near the beginning airs his assurance that the money he will earn will be tainted but also accepts Carver's pugilistic reduction to winners and losers because it sounds both rehearsed and the result of a hard centred methodical business nervous system. The pair's exchanges never feel like a Real Estate Bad Guy FAQ nor straight dogma, however home baked.
This would fail without the performance of the mighty Michael Shannon as Carver. Shannon has a big physicality. He looks like he has been hewn from mountain rock but his eyes glow bright and deadly and the effect is like seeing a statue with living sight. His voice is earth deep and can sound as though it's being held down by paramedics. The presence he establishes in performance feels like a controlled explosion. So, when he delivers some of the more violent thinking this role gives him, a conspiratorial smile relieves us as much as Dennis.
And Dennis wouldn't be as interesting as he is without Brit Andrew Garfield showing us such a transparent workmanlike pragmatism. Dennis is a builder. He knows his hammers, wood, plaster, electrics and plumbing and can look at some of the worst things he has to do as jobs first and sleeploss second. There is a kind of trampoline of relaxed muscularity Garfield maintains that catches each fall and spring and is impressive to watch, the more for its understatement against Shannon's maelstrom.
That's the other thing about this film that got me. It speaks of the violation of the American Dream through a proposed masculinity that also serves as it's Achilles heel. Regardless of where we stand on the notion of shows of machismo under fire we are unsettled to see it so rapidly deflate when it meets too much pressure and we wince when it stands with futility against that pressure. Dennis and Carver both represent a kind of survivalist masculinity as does all the other male heavy victim roll call we seen in the film. It's not manliness under attack but rather a failure of its self awareness.
Kudos, also to this film for refusing to sex up the power centre with the kind of sexy camera moves and pilates soundtrack that Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese made standard. Carver is not a folk hero, even a folk anti-hero. The rooms and sunshine he blusters through are the same for everyone without a virtuoso tracking shot or Rolling Stones-fuelled montage. The houses which form the centres of the many conflicts of this tale are solid and sheltering with or without him.
The women are marginalised in this testosterone fest but they are not without a voice. While there is a depiction of man-first conflict negotiation the women are frequently shown as perspicacious and adamant, it's just that they are most often seen physically in support of the men. This is a cultural observation on the part of the film rather than prescriptive order. When we see the sequences of cash-for-keys taking place it is the women who are seen the most settling, minus the barking show of the machismo, for the pragmatic solution, however regretfully. Also, can't leave this without mention of the always welcome Laura Dern as Dennis' mother who makes the most of her marginal role until it compresses with its necessity.
Finally, there are the victims who evoke most of our pity, the children of the evicted families, the truly powerless. But are they? So much of the strain we see and feel has to do with their well-being and the final image is of a child who expresses everything we feel with barely a facial movement and no words at all. It feels, as it should, like a mule's kick.