99 Homes is the latest of writer-director Ramin Bahrani's dispatches from working-class America, and its opening fifteen minutes, as close to a state-of-the-nation address as this director has ever filmed, are heartbreaking. Florida realtor Rick Carter (Michael Shannon) is introduced looming - as only a Shannon character can - over the former owner of a property the bank has just foreclosed on, a man who chose to put a bullet in his brain rather than incur the hardship of homelessness. This would be tragic enough, but the day-to-day detail of Carter's dirty work is every bit as wrenching: here he is showing up on the doorstep of the house struggling construction worker and single parent Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) shares with his mother (Laura Dern) and young son, and - despite the occupants' pleas - crowbarring them and every last one of their possessions out onto the front lawn, so he can snap this one-time home up and sell it on for profit. The desperate stakes are underlined when Dennis accepts a job offer from the man who's turfed him out: we might feel the proximity of neat screenwriting contrivance, if the job in question didn't require Dennis to enter a house that's been deliberately flooded with sewage, and thus literally wade through shit. A bond of some sort forms. Carter gains an extra pair of hands to help with the heavy lifting and recalcitrant tenants (whose language Dennis speaks all too well); in return, Dennis gains an education in the system that left him out in the cold, while getting paid - handsomely - for his endeavours. To you and I, of course, this alliance has the look of a deal with the devil - we wonder how long it can possibly last - but then beggars can't be choosers, especially not in this economy.
What follows is a less-than-scenic tour of that part of Florida that bore the brunt of the late Noughties financial crash - modest homes, people clinging onto them by their fingertips - in the company of two eminently capable guides. Shannon's Carter, like many agents of late capitalism, has a way of insulating himself from the consequences of his actions ("I didn't kick you out; the bank did"), and a tendency to approach people as though they were secondary to his ever-expanding portfolio. (Even here, he insists "don't get emotional about real estate".) Yet he's never anything so straightforward as a monster, just a guy working a rigged system, and doing it well enough to have generated a surplus for himself (folding money, bricks and mortar, a wife and a mistress); we might have admired or envied him, as Scorsese and Terence Winter encouraged us to admire or envy The Wolf of Wall Street's Jordan Belfort, were Bahrani not so rigorous about showing us the lives and dreams this bastard has trampled on to get where he is. Confronted by the fresh-faced Garfield, some viewers will likely express the usual qualm that the actor's too youthful for the role, no matter that he's gained a pectoral tattoo and wields a mean drill. It's dramatically effective, however, that someone this angelic-looking should wind up pulling the same low moves as his mentor to keep a roof over his lopsided family's heads. If nobody's building, and eviction is your nearest growth industry, why not get your hands dirty?
Inscribed through this rueful scenario like seaside rock is a sorry understanding that, with things being as they are, it may no longer be possible to get ahead in America without screwing somebody else over. That youth keeps Dennis's relationship with his mother interesting, too: it provides an oblique reflection of the arrested development capitalism brings about - leaving grown men and women living at home with their parents - and positions centre-frame a boy looking to his mom to know that what he's doing is right. The hurt on Garfield's face when he realises that he isn't is exactly that of a five-year-old who's been caught with his hand in the cookie jar: this, Bahrani says, is what we've all been reduced to. The name of the late Roger Ebert - an early supporter of this filmmaker's work - appears very prominently in 99 Homes' closing credits; wherever that doyen of the screening rooms is now, he'd surely offer two enthusiastic thumbs-up at the film's slowburn reassertion of conscience against the backdrop of an even wilder, ever more unregulated West. Underscreened and thereby overlooked on its UK theatrical release, this is the work of an independently minded creative demonstrating he can deploy name actors instead of non-professionals, and attempt something more commercial in his framing, while remaining engaged, committed, and self-evidently on the right side of this hellacious ongoing struggle.
99 Homes screens on BBC1 at 11.05pm tonight, and will then be available to stream on the iPlayer here for the next month.