A pact with the devil: bankruptcy, greed from Florida to Venice
US actor Michael Shannon signs autographs as he arrives for the screening of the movie "99 Homes" at the 71st Venice Film Festival on August 29, 2014 at Venice Lido - by Gabriel Bouys
The movie, premiering at the Venice film festival and a strong contender for the Golden Lion, stars Andrew Garfield ("The Social Network" and "Amazing Spiderman") as Denis Nash, a father who falls behind on his mortgage payments.
Nash, who lives with his young son and mother, is desperate to save their home but gets evicted by pitiless real estate broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon from "Revolutionary Road" and "Man of Steel"), and is forced to move into a rundown and dangerous motel.
It is the first in a series of emotionally wrenching scenes in which whole families -- even the elderly -- get turfed out of their homes without warning, with just two minutes to collect their belongings under threat of arrest for trespassing.
Unable to get work as a contractor, a humiliated Nash finds himself forced to decide whether or not to accept work from the reptilian Carver in a bid to recover his house, or take the moral high ground but see his family suffer.
- 'Dizzy with corruption' -
Carver tries to reel Nash in by showing him how to rig and exploit the system to his own advantage, screwing the banks and stealing bailout money.
"America doesn’t bail out losers. It's a nation that was built on bailing out winners," he says.
Director Ramin Bahrani told journalists in Venice it was "in many ways a 'deal with the devil' movie."
"It's a global subject, the corruption in the film has become systemic across the world... (and) the perpetrators are hand in hand with the government," he added.
Bahrani, of "At Any Price" fame, said he researched the film in Florida, attending foreclosure courts, visiting motels housing middle class families and meeting "the richest and craziest hedge fund managers you can dream of."
Quick-paced, with a glimpse at the soulless life of the wealthy, "99 Homes" is a muscular flick with a gangster edge, the repugnant developments between evictor and evictee playing out in an atmosphere of barely-restrained violence.
"I was with hoodlums and thieves and after about three weeks i was dizzy with corruption. I never saw so many guns in my life, it's like the wild west with palm trees," the bespectacled 39-year old Bahrani said.
The "99" from the title refers both to a corrupt housing deal in the film and the slogan used by demonstrators to decry the growing economic divide between 99 percent of Americans and the richest one percent despite the crisis.
The choice to set the movie in Orlando, near Disney World, came naturally, Bahrani said, because while "Florida is golf carts, retirees, magic kingdoms and castles," is it also "where the housing crisis began, before spreading globally."
- 'Change is coming' -
The foreclosure crisis has seen at least 10 million people evicted from over four million homes in the US since 2007, with Florida topping the chart.
Bahrani was given an insight into the brutal world of the courts by whistle-blower Lynn Szymoniak, who in 2012 unveiled a massive mortgage fraud scam by which banks were foreclosing on houses by using phony documents -- a trick which is picked up in the film.
"Foreclosure courts are called 'rocket dockets' because it all happens in 60 seconds flat. I couldn't believe it, cases are just thrown out," he said.
At the heart of the film -- addressed with rare honesty for a commercial US film -- are the governmental and banking policies behind the housing bubble and crash.
"From the post-war period, but from 1979 onwards in particular, regulation in the States dramatically changed -- a type of regulation which would only benefit the extremely wealthy... creating a crisis the tentacles of which reached all over the world," Bahrani said.
"And not one person went to jail. It's a system rigged for those who win."
However, the socially-driven director said he hoped "this film will spread its tentacles out from Venice and mean something to the 99 percent that are tired of it all."
"Change is coming," he said.