From Victims to Villains: Reinvention in America
“America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners. By rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.” So if you’re life isn’t going the way you’d hoped, you have a simple solution: become a damn winner. Second acts come at inopportune times and in surprising shapes. They confront us in the form of new jobs and sudden deaths, sometimes planned, often unexpected. But for many people, that transition is hinged on one simple concept: success. Winning. Second acts – no, second lives – are sought out purposefully by those who haven’t reached the heights they’d hoped for in their first lives. Second lives offer the chance to reset, to reinvent. The chance to find the successes that eluded us in our first go-round. But so many of us are destined for tragedy from the start. For Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) in Ramin Behrani’s 99 Homes, and Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) in Riley Stearns’s The Art of Self-Defense, the heartbreak of their very masculine, extremely American second lives is baked right into their definition of success. For each of them, success is something simple: the opposite of failure. More precisely, success is the opposite of the specific, personal failures of their past selves, in effect dooming them to become the villains they had grown to hate. And whether because of the rigged system they live in, or because of their very human nature, Dennis and Casey are ultimately unable to escape that fate. But first: failure. Stearns and Behrani have fundamentally different reference points for their treatment of success and failure, and they each spend the early portions of their films establishing what these concepts mean. In 99 Homes, failure is determined by society. In a cut-throat, capitalist America, losing your home is one of life’s greatest letdowns. In a series of quick, early scenes, Behrani introduces us to Dennis Nash and his various disappointments. He works a construction job for two weeks, only to learn he won’t be getting paid. He argues futilely with a disinterested judge, fighting to save his home in front of his young son. He combs through documents and tries to understand the arcane legal bullshit of foreclosure. And, finally, he desperately begs for more time when eviction day arrives. Dennis Nash has failed to provide a home. As he moves himself, his son, and his mother (Laura Dern) into a motel, Dennis Nash is a failure. This is how his first life has turned out. In The Art of Self-Defense, Casey Davies has seen his first life end in similar disappointment. But in Riley Stearns’s world, failure is defined much differently. Unlike Dennis Nash, Casey has a steady job. He’s an accountant, and he’s good enough at it. He has a home, a dog, even a boss he can call a friend. But Casey is weak. He’s socially awkward, an outcast from the in-crowd at work. He doesn’t stand up for himself when coworkers bully him. He isn’t dating anyone, and his solitary red-blooded interaction is the after-work kisses from his mini-Dachshund. Casey is feeble, and in the hyper-masculine America that Stearns presents and skewers, that is the ultimate failure in a man. The brutal beat-down that Casey faces at the hands of a motorcycle gang one night is less an unlucky tragedy, and more the inevitable climax of his weakness. In essence, Dennis and Casey are losers.
And thus begin the shocking transformations of Dennis and Casey from victims to villains, losers to winners. Yet as each man moves along his own path, both films urge viewers to look under the hood, where they’re likely to find that these changes aren’t quite as shocking as they seem. In fact, they might just be inevitable. Both movies establish the parameters for this transformation by introducing the end result early on: the winners. In the opening scene of 99 Homes, Rick Carver, played by Michael Shannon with a menacing glee that barely hides the humanity underneath, struts through the foreclosed home of a man who shot himself like he owns it – which, technically, the bank does. Rick is the boss. He even makes a police officer wait for a conversation while Rick finishes up a business call. In The Art of Self-Defense, when Casey first steps foot in a karate dojo, he witnesses the uber-masculine Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) teaching a group of grown men (and one woman) how to speak with their bodies. He is everything that Casey isn’t: strong, self-assured, controlled. He is a capital M Man. Rick Carvery and Sensei are winners. The respective filmmakers cast them in many roles throughout their films – mentors, saviors, villains – but in both movies, they serve primarily as ciphers for cultural commentary. In a perverted capitalist society that values the wealthy one percent over everyone else, Rick Carver represents that money-above-all approach. And in a world of toxic masculinity, Sensei is Top Dog. They each give a voice – at times lacking nuance – to their filmmaker’s societal critiques. More functionally, both men serve as film Charons, ferrymen to our victims as they traverse the River Success and head toward their second lives. And in doing so, they manifest as mentors, offering every pretext and rationalization necessary to disguise what are otherwise transformational decisions to turn losers into winners. For Casey, it starts innocently enough. He joins a karate class. He focuses on his training, makes friends, does well, and gets invited to the night class. The story is the same for Dennis, who, desperate for cash, volunteers to do a job that nobody else will: excavate shit from one of Rick Carver’s properties set for foreclosure. He gets paid, shows leadership skills, and gets invited to do some construction work on Rick’s personal house. No big deal. Except it is. Because in these small decisions, Casey and Dennis have made decisions they will find nearly impossible to reverse. From here on out, as Rick Carver puts it, “That’s the side you’re on.” The winning side. When Sensei breaks the arm of one of Casey’s friends for showing up to night class uninvited, Casey balks, shocked. And when Rick offers Dennis the chance to be his “guy,” to do anything and everything for him, and tells him to get a gun, the former construction worker hesitates. “This ain’t what I do,” he tells a fellow foreclosure victim. But he’s on the other side of that eviction notice already, and there’s no going back to their old lives. 99 Homes and The Art of Self-Defense find their greatest strengths in visualizing the internal journeys taken by their main characters. Justifying contradictory actions and feelings is hard; showing those justifications so the audience understands them, feels them, even relates to them – that’s nearly impossible. Yet both pull it off. As Dennis gets deeper into Rick’s business, we see everything it gives him. He brings home cash to his mom and son, awash in the glow of providing for his family. He scraps and saves and is finally able to buy back their family home, and in one of Behrani’s most heartfelt scenes, he takes his son back and lets him run-around his once and future bedroom. An evictee teaming up with his evictor is a tough pill to swallow, but the family bliss it affords is an effective coating. Dennis has become a winner by erasing his past self’s failures, in the process buying into the rigged system that fucked him in the first place. Riley Stearns takes a similar approach to Casey’s journey. As he gets deeper into the not-quite-fight-club, the once timid accountant sees a change in his personal and professional lives. He stands up to his coworkers, earning a seat at their cool kids’ table. He shamelessly looks at porn at work, and confronts his boss when questioned about his work. Casey is a new person – a new man – and the extreme violence is worth it. Rather than redefining success, Casey has set out to prove his strength to the very people who made him feel weak in the first place. He’s a winner now, in some sense, but at what cost? Both directors also take pains to paint their villains with a soft brush at crucial moments. Maybe this is an attempt to humanize, to add layers to otherwise thin caricatures. Whether or not that’s the case, the efforts serve to slowly erase any lingering doubts from Casey and Dennis. When Sensei proudly wears the belt Casey made for him, their bond is cemented, and Casey’s hesitance banished. And when Rick offers his sob-story background about how he never wanted to get into evictions, he dispels Dennis’s reservations, clinching it with a killer line: “my daddy was a roofer.” Did Sensei actually like the belt? Was Rick’s daddy really a roofer? For my money, I think it’s bullshit. In two films that at times force-feed their worldviews to audiences, this screams as yet another tool the villains – the winners – of society use to convert the rest of us. Fake sympathy and phony solidarity.
But it works on Dennis and Casey, and as their resistance fades, both films pay special attention to the small things that can drastically change a person. For Casey, it’s heavy-metal music, the aggressive, harsh screaming rattling around in his head. For Dennis, it’s when he’s given the opportunity to share his cut with his team, and he lies to them about how much the job will pay just so he can keep a bigger cut. It’s the little details and the tiny decisions that show just how far they’ve come, just how much they’ve changed. They’re winners now. That’s the side they’re on, so that’s the way they act. Yet as much as they’ve changed, their old selves and lives remain, and neither Casey nor Dennis are ever able to make a clean break. When your entire new identity is premised on the idea of being the opposite of your former self – or achieving the things you failed at in the past – you haven’t undergone any real transformation at all. And so it is that Dennis and Casey’s tethers periodically yank them back to reality, leaving both the young men and the viewers with the whiplash of trying to stand in two worlds at once. For Dennis, it’s his mother, who, at times incredibly vulnerable and at others aggressively searing, reminds him of his values. For Casey, it’s his dog, a decidedly non-masculine Dachshund that ends up the target of his violent new friends. The lesson here is simple: you are not defined by your success or your failures. Winning or losing is not a real identity. No matter what you change on the outside – your job, your home, your belt – you’ll remain the same person that you were, and the rest of your old self won’t just come out in the wash. No matter how much you wish it would. And in this tug-o-war between old and new; victim and villain; success and failure – tragedy is inevitable. When Casey and Dennis model their new selves after the winners in society, they internalize the twisted systems that crushed them in the first place. They are doomed to become what they hate. What makes these transformations so compelling and utterly heartbreaking are the scathing critiques that each movie presents of those same twisted systems. The Art of Self-Defense and 99 Homes take wildly different approaches, using completely different tones and tools to attack their respective cultural boogeymen, but both do so bluntly and effectively. Through satire, deadpan comedy, and on-the-nose caricatures, The Art of Self-Defense skewers toxic masculinity. On the other hand, 99 Homes weaponizes righteous indignation, melodrama, and over-the-top monologues to take a massive swing at the greed baked into American capitalism before, during, and after the financial crisis. When both films show their protagonists as victims of these systems run amok – Dennis as he is evicted by an unfeeling Rick Carver, and Casey as he’s beaten to a pulp by a group of helmeted bikers – it’s a harbinger of the heartbreaking transformation to come. And here’s where these two films split in perhaps their most interesting way: the source of the ever-present forces that push and pull us toward the inescapable endings. For Behrani, it’s dog-eat-dog capitalism that provides the invisible hand, slowly corrupting even principled family men like Dennis Nash. For Stearns, on the other hand, that force is internal. The poisonous cultural norms of male strength can give us a nudge, but for Casey, it’s his potent mix of insecurity and lust for power and control that lead him inexorably down his path. In the end, this is a crucial difference. For Dennis, his journey is marked by false choices – the twist-turned-upside-down economy pushes him slowly, decision by decision, toward villainy. Yet even as he finds himself on the other side of an eviction in the film’s climactic scene, partnered with his own grim reaper, Rick Carver, Dennis has not completely lost his sense of self. Societal forces are powerful, but when they push a person too far, the individual still retains the power to fight back. And so Dennis does, confessing his sins to help the evictee, albeit sacrificing his family and his newfound financial freedom in the process. For Casey, the story is different. As he learns that it was members of the dojo that pulverized him early in the film, and as he goes on a mission to do the same to some other innocent bystander, Casey has lost the ability to fight back. Having completely internalized the worldview of his Sensei, Casey has lost his autonomy – his identity and toxic masculinity have become one and the same. When pushed to the edge, Casey willingly jumps off, completing the vicious cycle by murdering his Sensei and taking his spot as the head of the dojo. In a sense, the transformations of Casey and Dennis are shocking. Evicted to evictor; destroyed to destroyer. In reality, their stories are the American dream: to go from stepped on by The Man, to The Man stepping on others. Forging ahead on this path is difficult – we rationalize; we adopt willful, temporary blindness; and we ignore the very real shreds of our past selves threatening to come up for air. But in the end, it’s hammered into us over and over that life is all about winning. If you lose, you can just re-invent yourself as a winner. And one day, you’ll find yourself in the shoes of the very same people who once crushed you. And unless you have a sense of self separate from your success – an identity beyond winning – you’re likely to repeat the vicious cycle. And really, the only winners are the screwed up structures – capitalism, masculinity, you name it – that allowed this to happen in the first place.