Eviction porn has ethical foundations

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99 Homes (MA). Director: Ramin Bahrani. Starring: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern. 112 minutes

On the face of it, a thriller set in the world of residential real estate sounds like a low-stakes prospect. Director Ramin Bahrani dispels any such reservations with his opening shot: The sight of a blood-splattered bathroom, and the sprawled legs of, presumably, a suicide victim, remind us that in the getting and losing of homes, the stakes are very high indeed. These brick boxes are, literally, concrete emblems of stability and security. The ability to have a roof over ones head (and ones family) is, in modern Western societies, bound up with a sense of dignity and mental and emotional wellness.

99 Homes is set in Florida in 2010 and takes place against the backdrop of the catastrophic crash of the US housing market. As such it gives rise to a new genre, what might wryly be dubbed 'eviction porn'. There are sequences that linger on the lurid details of families' or individuals' removal from the brick boxes that have been their homes, often for decades. We can only watch as they cycle through stages of denial, bargaining, fury and grief — or, worse, quiet, dazed acceptance. These are well meaning people who have innocently fallen foul of a system that deals in laws and dollars, not humanity.

One devil taking full advantage of these details is Rick Carver (Shannon), a real estate operator who has found himself in a position to profit from the chaos of the crash. Carver has grown rich on buying and selling the homes of desperate people, and by exploiting and manipulating government and banking regulations. Later, we learn that he regards this path with a degree of nobility and even righteousness, pointing at the idiocy of people and inhumanity of government and banks. But clearly it has cost him: he witnesses the aftermath of the aforementioned suicide with little more than mild, mute disdain.

Any devil must possess considerable charm and persuasion, if he is to have an influence on basically good people. People such as Dennis Nash (Garfield), for example, an out-of-work construction worker and breadwinner both for his young son and his mother (Dern), who, early in the film, is evicted from his family home by Carver, but later finds himself drawn into working for him. Initially this unlikely defection to the dark side is purely pragmatic — Nash needs the money — but it is sustained by Carver's seductive rhetoric about haves and have-nots, which perversely presages that of the Occupy Movement.

As Nash is drawn deeper into Carver's world, he loses sight of those basically good motivations that once drove him, and the ethical assumptions that underpinned his worldview. There is an inherent violence contained in exploitative acts, and as Nash finds himself increasingly to be the purveyor of this exploitation, the violence he internalises threatens his own emotional wellbeing and the steadfastness of the relationships that are most important to him. (Garfield, baby-faced even in a beard, brings effortless sympathy to his portrayal of Nash, proving the perfect foil to Shannon's stern and charismatic Carver).

On a purely storytelling level, 99 Homes is a rivetting thriller, yet its topicality and ethical dimensions drive rather than merely dress it. At its most fundamental thematic level it lays bear the workings of a system so corrupt that it turns the exploited into exploiters; where its desperate victims embrace corruption in turn as a means of survival. In this case it is a brutal manifestation of capitalism, but in reality it might be any ideology that is allowed to operate without reference to the wellbeing and dignity of other vulnerable human beings. Such are the devils we should keep from our doors.

 

Anyone in Australia experiencing a personal crisis can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or go to www.lifeline.org.au.

 


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern

 

 

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Existing comments

This is such a difficult story to comment on. So this is a personal perspective as it should be. When people lose their home there's no going back. People find another home, of sorts. But it's never the same. Some people take their own lives, some join the exploiters, and some manage to craft together another life. The first option is numbingly tragic, the second option is the result of unconscionable damage to another human being and the third option never fully compensates for what has been lost. No winners in this story.
Pam | 12 November 2015


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