This week, filmmaker Ramin Bahrani claims one of the highest grails in cinema with the Criterion Collection releases of his first two works, 2006’s Man Push Cart and 2008’s Chop Shop. For the man whom Roger Ebert deemed “the new great American director” in 2009, this latest canonization assumes even more weight as it confers institutional might beyond just individual preference. These hardscrabble neorealist triumphs hardly need champions anymore; their legacy is minted.
But there’s a growing sense of lamentation that as the scale and scope of Bahrani’s output have expanded, he’s lost something unique by foreswearing his microbudget origins. Given the comparative paucity of American filmmakers devoted to capturing the dirty details of contemporary life, that mourning is not misplaced. At present, the legacy of Bahrani’s post-recession moral dramas is that they stand apart from his small-scale origins. 2013’s At Any Price features Dennis Quaid as a patriarchal Iowa farmer attempting to lure his son (Zac Efron) into the family trade while he resorts to dubious techniques to fend off competitors. The more critically and financially successful 99 Homes (2015) cast Andrew Garfield as a single father in Florida embodying the complications of false consciousness when he accepts a job doing the bidding of the very real estate tycoon (a menacingly silver-tongued Michael Shannon) that evicted his own family from their home.
With Bahrani moving onto even grander canvases with literary adaptations for corporate behemoths like HBO (2018’s Fahrenheit 451) and Netflix (2021’s The White Tiger), this pair of films look akin to stepping stones toward the mainstream. But the pairs of Man Push Cart/Chop Shop and At Any Price/99 Homes share more than just their director. While they hum along wholly different frequencies, these different phases of Bahrani’s career share remarkable through-lines both aesthetically and thematically. His fabulistic works deserve contextualization as complementary extensions of his neorealistic films’ concerns, not as somehow anathema to them.
All four films provide a variation on the central question of Bahrani’s early career: what is the true cost of the American Dream? Much like the clichéd way that a city becomes a “character” in location-based works, the economy exerts an undeniable force over all the films. No matter what tools Bahrani employs to relay his stories, he fixates on the impossibility of achieving upward mobility in an honest manner. Family, friendship and honor all bend the knee before the almighty dollar. As such, cheating, theft or fraud all play an outsized role in the narrative resolutions.
For cart vendor Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) of Man Push Cart and laboring street orphan Ale (Alejandro Polanco) of Chop Shop, the journey to prosperity – or even security – assumes a repetitive rhythm. They’re each scrapping for an escape out of financial precarity through the slow accumulation of capital, hoping that a long-gestating business venture can bring them out of the shadow economy of New York City. The form of these films with the gritty, grainy, street-level view of the characters makes for a seamless match to the content of the films themselves. There’s little glamour in living hand-to-mouth, yet Bahrani’s gracious observance of their travails transposes a Sisyphean mythology upon their lives that the characters themselves would be too busy to see.
Meanwhile, Bahrani’s moral tales examine the mythology of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” thinking that’s ingrained within the American character. The casts of At Any Price and 99 Homes are almost exclusively white, a crucial contrast to the immigrants and people of color who populate his first films. Though financial worries still preoccupy the Whipple and Nash families, respectively, they have the privilege to understand their lives as existing as part of a grand tradition of forward motion. Their tantalizing proximity to material success grants them the potential to fulfill and embody American values. Situating their struggles and strivings within a more standard narrative arc makes sense, especially given the ways Bahrani upends the expectations of genre formulation.
Where Bahrani spots nobility in the routines of characters like Ahmad and Ale to serve a rigged system, he exposes vacuity in the rituals and symbols that provide a guiding compass to the characters of At Any Price and 99 Homes. The former film especially shows how the amorality of the Whipple family profanes the recitation of sacred credos like “The Star-Spangled Banner” and The Lord’s Prayer. Because these appeals to greater causes no longer animate the rapacious farmer Henry Whipple (Quaid) and his listless son Dean (Efron), these time-honored traditions are now just perfunctory performances. 99 Homes, on the other hand, demolishes the fallacious belief that one’s sense of self-worth should be tied to a piece of property (a lesson learned the hard way in Man Push Cart as well). Bahrani can be quite bludgeoning with his deployment of empty signifiers – the billowing American flag, a smiling family business, a grand estate – but their omnipresence underscores the tragic irony of the characters’ relentless drive to find fulfillment in them all the same.
This grandiosity is how the characters understand their lives as situated within the economy and society at large, and Bahrani is not afraid to let them speechify or editorialize in these terms. They speak plainly of winners and losers, structures and systems because it is the vocabulary of the self-aware. As big agro and GMOs cut into the Whipples’ humble family farming business, and the construction of homes by Dennis Nash (Garfield) gives way to their treatment as mere valuated properties by real estate sharks, these characters face existential threats to their very line of work. Their dialogue matches the intensity of their perceived precarious position. Bahrani himself, however, never takes on a didactic or instructive posture through the characters. Even as they probe deeply moral questions about the promises and perils of taking shortcuts to success, At Any Price and 99 Homes are decidedly without a character who serves as a moral center.
“They just don’t make any sense,” Bahrani once said of tidy third acts that magically grant the characters’ desires. “They create massive confusion.” If neorealism is a rebellion against the artificiality of narrative from the outside, Bahrani’s refusal to adhere to standard wish-fulfillment mythology combusts it from the inside in his moral films. The two endings function as neat inverses of the other: in one film, the characters sell out their values but achieve their desired ends, while in the other, the characters come to a reckoning with their misdeeds but lose out on the windfall they accumulated. When analyzed together, it’s ambiguous as to who – if anyone – Bahrani thinks has come out on top. Other than the systems of power designed to hoard power and prosperity away from the masses, of course.
Taken together, Bahrani’s indie work encompasses a bottom-up view of the American economy’s wearied foot soldiers, from those who are cheated (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop) to those who do the cheating while getting cheated themselves (At Any Price, 99 Homes). Just because the latter grouping opts to tell as much as they show does not make them inherently lesser works; there’s value in subverting the tidiness of moral fables to arrive at an equally cogent, urgent point. Ignore built-in biases around any one technique’s superiority and marvel at the multiple angles through which Bahrani can convey one consistent message: the mythologized American sense of self-reliance is a road that ends in solitude more often than success.