The film opens in classic police noir style, with a body in the bathroom, a gun on the floor and a flickering clock giving us time of death. Instead of a detective, in walks Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a real estate broker whose speciality is repossessions. The year is 2010 and Fanny Mae is taking away people’s property by the thousand. The body in the bathroom is one of Rick’s victims: he’s no killer, but he is complicit in stripping away people’s lives.
Next on Ric’s list is Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a hardworking blue-collar worker, handy with his hands but not adept at sorting out his financial woes. He, his son and mother Lynn (Laura Dern) are summarily kicked out onto the street and take their meagre belongings to a motel, where they are greeted by a friendly family. Asked how long they are staying, Lynn replies “just a night or two” and her new neighbour wryly replies that that’s what she thought and two months have gone by. The motel is a no-man’s-land of foreclosed families.
When Dennis discovers some missing tools, he confronts Rick’s workman and is thus thrust into the Rick’s world. In no time at all, Dennis metamorphoses from outraged impotence to hard-dealing schemer. In fact from that flickering clock in the opening scene we get a sense of the fleetingness of time: it’s all short-term deals and 30-day warnings, and the score emphasises our sense of time ticking by and rapidly running out. Bahrani also offers up many glimpses of guns, from that initial scene through to Rick arming himself before most foreclosures, Dennis asking for a gun and the weapons of angry and frightened home owners. The director teases us with this anticipation of an inevitable death, but keeps us guessing as to whose it might be.
Through the character of Dennis, Bahrani shows how easy it is to slip into this sleazy world and how the need and desire for money can quickly strip a person of their human decency. This is in contrast to Frank (Tim Guinee), another potential foreclosure victim, who shows that it is possible to maintain one’s dignity and honesty despite life’s huge pitfalls. We have to wait until the end to discover if Dennis is capable of regaining his own decency after losing his family’s respect and forgetting why he embarked on this moral descent in the first place.
Bahrani’s is a damning tale of how corporate society screws the average American and how easy it is to become powerless against the might of the law, the banks and the government. But it is also a moral tale of a man’s journey through some of the inner circles of this fiscal hell. Dern and Garfield put in great performances, and Guinee excels as a beacon of dignity but it is Shannon’s portrayal of this ambiguous and multifaceted character that truly shines in this excellent film.