'It's a Faust story," says Ramin Bahrani of his new thriller 99 Homes, which opens in theatres more than a year after its Canadian premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. "It's about the deal that gets made with the devil."
The devil in Bahrani's film is – naturally – played by Michael Shannon, immaculately clad in off-the-rack designer suits as Rick Carver, a predatory Florida businessman who's got repossessing and repurposing suburban homes down to a science, or maybe an art form: Backed by local cops who flash badges or guns as needed, he shoos overextended debtors out of their houses and then sells the homes for a pittance (and a profit) to eager buyers.
Shannon is in fine Mephistophelean form, but 99 Homes is more of a showcase for Andrew Garfield, who plays Dennis Nash, a cash-strapped single father who gets unceremoniously booted by Carver's goons and then goes to work for him – first as a carpenter, and then as an apprentice in the dark art of real estate chicanery. "I think he's the greatest actor of his young generation," says Bahrani of his young star, who disappears into a scruffy coiffure and a flawless Sunshine State accent. "He became a man in this movie."
For Garfield, that process of maturity is also the subtext of 99 Homes, which he describes as a drama about a young man whose personality and worldview are still in formation. "I think that a person's late 20s are a very interesting period of initiation into adulthood," he says. "Some men make it and some men don't. They're perpetual boys, especially in our culture."
Bahrani says that he worked closely with Garfield to create a character who was credibly desperate but neither stupid nor clearly ethically suspect – a plausible candidate for the kind of manipulation offered up by his new boss. "In the script, Dennis was 30," he says, "and Andrew said that he thought he should be 27 instead, that that age made more sense for the guy to still be living with his mom and to be seduced by somebody like Carver."
"You have to brush up against the right kind of trouble to know who you are," Garfield adds. "We all have to get into trouble and make mistakes to get back to our original nature. He gets seduced. I think all of us get seduced by something or other. We have to get taken to the dark to find our sense of light."
At the time of our interview, Garfield had just gone through the rough reception of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. When asked if a Marvel franchise might not be the "right kind of trouble," for a fledgling actor, he dispenses with defensiveness or disdain and tries to answer honestly. "I have a protective instinct and a love for those I've worked with on those big movies I've been a part of, and there are aspects of that process and environment that feel like the right kind of trouble," Garfield says. "This is a world of opposites, and with every bad there is a good … I had a character that has been in my DNA since I was three years old. And then there is Wal-Mart. I was naive to that when I signed on the dotted line. I've learned everything I was supposed to learn for those experiences."
Although it's taken a while for it to get off the festival circuit and into cinemas, 99 Homes is likely to be received as a movie of the moment: its focus on economic hardship and the plight of people living beyond their means positions it as a film against escapism. And in Garfield's finely controlled performance, it displays something beyond topical maladies; there's real pathos in the disparity between Dennis's manual dexterity and physical superiority and his total financial powerlessness.