99 Homes [2014]

Dennis Nash [Andrew Garfield] is another losing house owner in the great crash of ’08 until Richard Carver [Michael Shannon] takes him on as his protege and transforms him into something far more interesting: a tragic protagonist undone by his fatal flaw. This film is almost painfully earnest in its simple morality. In essence we have a young man taken into the quasi-legal world of Big Money ™ by a cynical rule-bending mentor. Of course the Faustian bargain ends exactly as they always do: with everything he tried to save in ruins. Bahrani’s deft direction and stalwart performances from the leads made this into a gripping experience, even if it’s arrow-like trajectory meant it was never in the least surprising. Perhaps more interesting than the film qua the film, is thinking about how this film changes the emphasis from it’s obvious progenitor, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, arising from what is in some senses the current crisis’s progenitor, the 1987 crash. 

In Wall Street, our victim-hero, Bud [Charlie “Tiger Blood” Sheen], is an straightforwardly trying to pursue the “American Dream” of filthy lucre. His transition from eagle-eyed and ambitious youthful trader into Gecko’s [Michael Douglas] murky catspaw feels like a basically organic and natural transformation, the completion of a semi-automatic process guided and controlled by an invisible hand. Bud is personally insignificant, he is merely one particle in an amoral corporate riptide. His family are not rich, as Bud wishes to be, but are basically successful within a working class paradigm, and for all their differences in views, his father is clear-eyed and rational about the options in the world. The film even allows him to be basically right, not so subtly acting as a commenting chorus in Bud’s tragedy. Gecko intends people to read his motto of “greed is good” as essentially a utilitarian comment, arguing that the combined self-interest of all people working together naturally lends itself to the best overall outcome; and actually, he is finally defeated essentially by a collective opposition, acting at least somewhat selfishly, and of course, by the betrayal of Bud. I think we are supposed to come away from the film believing in a version of Smith’s famous individual-interest parable, which is that if every individual does what is morally right, the moral outcome will result. As soon as Bud effectively reverses his insider-trading actions, natural justice follows automatically, so that the film is in the end a morality tale.

The world view offered in 99 Homes is far bleaker. Dennis begins the film as a hard worker, fully committed to the idea that hard work should be rewarded, but somewhat naive and somewhat money-stupid. Rather than seeking advantage the way Bud does, Dennis is forced into an alliance with his mentor through pure desperation, virtually having no other choices available to him. The rationality behind the real estate manoeuvring that Carver espouses is not dressed up in a high moralistic tone the way Gecko’s is, Carver openly admits to hating his profession, but he also fairly convincingly argues that he is a necessary and inevitable part of the way the system is designed. Gecko leverages the edges of a system that is basically fine, Carver survives inside the meat grinder of a system designed to destroy human lives. For all that Carver fulfils the role of villain, there is no question that he is an ultimate cause, just a particular one. When his illegality crosses a personal moral line for Dennis, leading ultimately to Carver’s destruction, the rationalisation for the act is that in this one instance out of a hundred the system was not perfectly efficient and that the illegality is simply correcting that oversight and the tragedy is that he is perfectly correct. Dennis allows a glitch in the system to deliver 1% of the victims a happy outcome, while destroying himself and Carver in the process. In absolute moral terms he’s doubtless correct, but there is no corresponding notion of comfort that’s created by Wall Street’s restoration of the airline company.

It would be unwise to read too much into a single pair of films, but I do generally feel that the discussion around the function of Big Money has inexorably moved from one of optimistic caution to resigned acceptance of a system rigged to reward those in positions of money and power. In twenty years we’ve gone from thinking that the financial system is occasionally exploited to understanding that it is designed expressly to transfer money from the bottom of the financial scale to the top.

99 Homes isn’t quite the product that Wall Street was on the level of pure entertainment. Dennis is just a little too dumb, Carver just a little too prone to semi-villainous monologuing. The cinematography is a little pedestrian, and basically it’s just a bit too on-the-nose. Nevertheless, it feels like a very important statement about a cancerous element of our mundane financial system that hasn’t really been properly resolved either legally or emotionally in the nearly 8 years since the subprime crash. 99 Homes is a timely reminder that there is basically still unfinished business on this score.

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