Tuesday, December 08, 2015
99 homes: theological film review
Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for December 2015.
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor
Together we approach Christmas. For many the story is about a homeless family being relocated at the whim of an oppressive regime. It is an understanding shaped by the Christmas story in Luke in which a census is legislated and a family has finds “no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
“99 Homes” is thus a contemporary Christmas Eve story. Recently unemployed builder, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) and his family are evicted from their home in Orlando, Florida. The man representing their bank, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), feigns sympathy, insisting he is simply following legislative decree.
The film, directed by Ramin Bahrani, becomes a biting commentary on the post-2008 US housing market crash. Bahrani spent hours in foreclosure courts watching the legislative moves by which families lost their homes in snap judgements. Bahrani’s research is put to use as Nash, returning to protest, finds himself employed by Carver. As Nash explains to Carver, “America is a culture for winners, by winners.” There is more money in eviction than construction. This is the central tension around which the plot revolves. Is home a place of safety, community and memory? Or is home a commodity to be brought and sold?
“99 Homes” is wonderfully shot by veteran cinematographer, Bobby Bukowski. A highlight is a lingering shot of Nash, panning from gun and whiskey bottle to Nash sleeping by a swimming pool. As the ringing phone disturbs his drunken slumber, we realize we are seeing not Nash’s floating body but his reflection. It captures the helpless, lonely reality of one man drowning in what director, Ramin Bahrani calls the “devil,” the system of scams in which government and banking rules are manipulated at the expense of struggling home owners.
So where is Emmanuel, the God with us of the Christian Christmas story? The only direct reference to Christian faith in “99 Homes” occurs when Carver justifies his work of eviction to Nash. Carver applies the lens of church-as-building to Christian faith. There is, Carver practically notes, only room for a limited number of people inside the building that is church. Those left outside, those made homeless from the house of God, are thus required to help themselves. It is a “survival of the fittest” doctrine of election.
Another place to locate Emmanuel, God with us, is in the scene where Nash receives his first payment from Carver. It is cash to clean up a house the departing tenants have sabotaged by destroying the sewer pipes. It’s a baptism of excrement, a welcome to the real world. It represents another place to find Emmanuel, God with us, on the side of Nash as he adjusts his face mask and begins to clean up the worst of human the condition.
It is a reminder that those inside the church buildings must refuse to abandon justice and economics to those with a “survival of the fittest” theology. The world of evictions and economics needs people of faith. The One who so loved the World is Emmanuel, God with us in acts of initial mercy and the restorative acts of justice.
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: forthcoming) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.
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