There were times during 99 Homes when I just wanted to stand up and scream in rage and frustration at the screen. Directed by Ramin Bahrani (At Any Price) from a script by Bahrani, Amir Naderi and Bahareh Azimi, 99 Homes is a drama about the foreclosure and housing crisis – brought about by the near-collapse of the big banks in 2008 – that plays like a thriller and focuses to devastating effect on how that terrible situation affected the millions of everyday working people who were being thrown out of their homes almost on a daily basis while predatory real estate agents and local banks repossessed their houses and flipped them for a profit.
Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a young single father and construction worker living in Florida with his son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern), who is unemployed and struggling to hold onto their family home. That’s when real estate magnate Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) shows up at their door with the police, telling the Nashes that they are being evicted and their house foreclosed on. The stunned family is barely given any time to collect whatever personal belongings and necessities they can before they are left out on the street, along with all their furniture and clothes.
Determined to get their house back, Nash finds himself actually doing some manual labor for Carver, who has amassed a fortune repossessing and selling foreclosed houses while gaming the system to be on the forefront of this sordid industry. Carver sees something he likes in Nash and takes him under his wing – with Nash, suddenly making money again and seeing a way to get his house back, reluctantly going along and even getting into the repossession business himself. He begins to realize, however, that Carver’s amoral and ethics-free line of work may destroy his soul the way it’s destroyed so many other lives.
What Bahrani and his collaborators do so brilliantly with 99 Homes is take an issue that many Americans have been affected by, while many more may not understand it, and cast it into the shape of a thriller, with a fast pace, a surging momentum and an escalating level of suspense that reaches an almost unbearable boiling point. But the second thing that Bahrani has done is give the film a documentary feel, from the way it is shot to the use of non-actors and real cops, to keep the human cost of what is happening front and center.
The results are nothing less than extraordinary, powerful and infuriating. There are many scenes of people being thrown out of their homes in this film, and each one of them is heartrending and difficult to watch in its own way because of the realistic way in which they are staged. Owning a home has always been one of the cornerstones of the so-called American Dream, and 99 Homes shows in no uncertain terms how that concept has been undermined and ravaged by the merciless profiteering of a few at the expense of many who have simply fallen on hard times.
Rick Carver is one of the most monstrous human beings you’ll see in a film this or any other year, the very embodiment of a greed-driven, nearly lawless system that allows the thirst for money, power and property to override any recognizable human emotions like empathy or sympathy. And yet the viewer can almost find himself nodding along when Carver says things like, “Don’t get emotional about real estate,” and admits he’s willing to flip his own home if it comes to it. Michael Shannon’s multi-layered, sensational performance never lets you forget that Carver is a ruthless predator, but also gives you a glimpse into the line of thinking that led him to where he is.
At the other end of the spectrum is Andrew Garfield, who quickly leaves his two wretched Spider-Man movies behind with an impassioned, emotionally sensitive portrayal that is as humane as Shannon’s Carver is cynical. We instantly believe him as a blue-collar American who works with his hands and simply strives to make an honest buck, and we feel his confusion and moral dilemma as he gets pulled deeper into Carver’s world – it’s right there on his face, in the way he says his lines and his body language. If he’s slightly overshadowed by Shannon, that’s simply because Carver casts such a huge presence over not just the lives of the Nashes but everyone who comes in contact with him.
99 Homes loses a little of its headlong rush and impending sense of dread in the third act, when the legalese around a conspiracy involving banks, a judge and another real estate company gets a little murky, and one could argue that the “deal with the devil” plot is somewhat schematic. But it quickly regroups with a knockout ending that is nearly perfect – neither completely bleak nor optimistic, but well-suited to the tone of everything that has come before. It’s also appropriate for the subject itself: countless American families have never regained their footing or their homes, while banks and people like Rick Carver continue to rake in money and holdings. One only wishes that the anger captured so effectively in 99 Homes could somehow come off the screen and be channeled into real change.
99 Homes is out in limited release starting today (Friday, September 25).