Starting with "Man Push Cart," his 2005 debut feature, writer-director Ramin Bahrani has made a career out of socially conscious melodramas by putting a dramatic human face on issues more usually found on editorial pages than entertainment sections.
Bahrani's latest film, "99 Homes," an examination of the crisis in bank foreclosures and repossessed homes in the guise of a thriller, is his best yet, largely because of a dynamite performance by co-star Michael Shannon that showcases his formidable gifts in a startling way.
An intense actor who specializes in bringing difficult people to life (and Oscar-nominated for "Revolutionary Road"), Shannon is ideally cast as unswerving Florida real estate operator Rick Carver, a man with an eye for the main chance and the foil for the film's hero, earnest striver Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield.)
While a lesser actor might have turned Carver into no more than the devil in a tropical weight suit, the nuanced Shannon is capable of making him unavoidably human. Amoral, yes, but also a creature of the system who does what he does because those are the avenues that are open to him.
"99 Homes" starts like a house afire, in the residence of a man who has just committed suicide rather than be evicted by Carver. He's a licensed real estate broker who does the dirty work for banks who foreclose on people who've fallen behind on their payments.
Fearless, relentless and totally without remorse, Carver is so plugged into the system he has the local police on speed dial. Indifferent to the fact that everyone hates him, he refuses to get emotional about real estate and sees other people's misery as nothing but opportunity. "I can't bring him back to life," he snaps impatiently when asked about that suicide. "Stop wasting my time."
Dennis Nash, by contrast, couldn't be a more different kind of guy. As played by the British Garfield, who slips effortlessly into Nash's soft Southern accent, he's a decent young man whose work in construction has disappeared because of the bad economy.
A native Floridian who still lives in the home he grew up in with his hairdresser mother (Laura Dern) and his young son (Noah Lomax), Nash is adamant that "ain't no one taking the house from us."
Best known to American audiences as Spider Man, Garfield is one of the most gifted of young British actors, memorable in such diverse films as "Red Riding Trilogy" and "Never Let Me Go." He's especially good at sensitive desperation, and he's able to project a steeliness behind the despair that catches Carver's eye.
The two meet, not surprising given the inevitably schematic nature of the script by Bahrani, Amir Naderi and Bahareh Azimi, when Carver shows up at Nash's door with a clutch of sheriff's deputies, announces "this house is owned by the bank," and gives Nash and his family two minutes to clear out forever.
Forced to live in a cheap motel that's become home to other displaced families, Nash is determined to earn enough money to somehow get his home back. Contrivance rears its head and the only job Nash can find is with erstwhile nemesis Carver, who hires him with the warning, "you work for me, you're mine."
Nash starts with the most menial of tasks, but soon enough is taking on more responsibility, learning about the scams Carver runs on the government and the bank, even getting as comfortable as he can with evicting other people. He doesn't tell his family where he works, but he starts to get hooked on the drug that enough money will solve every problem.
Because of its strong dialogue and convincing acting, "99 Homes" stays on point for quite some time, artfully disguising the film's increasing reliance on plot devices.
Finally, however, those contrivances overwhelm the drama, and "99 Homes" proves better at illuminating a problem than coming up with a convincing solution for its beleaguered characters. Even Shannon and Garfield can do only so much, though it is always involving to watch them try.
MPAA rating: R, for language, including some sexual references, and a brief violent image.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: Arclight, Hollywood, Landmark, West Los Angeles