Film Review: 99 Homes

The corruption of the American dream is one of the two takeaway morals in this reality-based thriller. The other one is simply this: If pushed to the limit with only one way out, any one of us is capable of making that proverbial deal with the devil.
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The pace is fast and the tension relentless—and a clear line is drawn between the good guys and the bad guys. Or so we think.

No, this isn’t the latest James Bond thriller; this is 99 Homes, and the bad guy here is the crisply attired Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) a real estate broker in Orlando, Florida, and the year is 2010, just as the financial crisis literally begins to hit home—family homes, that is. Carver no longer bothers with the simple buying-and-selling transactions that used to be his bread and butter, for he’s now raking in the really big bucks by joining forces with the banks to foreclose on the economically squeezed homeowners who aren’t able to keep up their mortgage payments.

We first meet Carver on a typically bright and sunny Florida day when—with eviction notice in hand—he enters a suburban tract house to discover the bloody body of a man who’d blown his brains out rather than give up his home. Carver appears more perturbed than devastated, as he puffs on his blue-tip e-cigarette and barks out orders to his clear-out crew while ranting to someone else on his cellphone. Oh yes, this is an evil man—and Shannon embodies him to stony-eyed perfection.

Carver’s next eviction is across town, at the home of a divorced single father, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), who lives with his mother, Lynn (Laura Dern), and young son, Connor (Noah Lomax). Dennis is a construction worker who’s been laid off with no pay (because the financing collapsed) and who, just that day, went to the court to seek more time to make his missed mortgage payments. The judge grants him a one-minute hearing (it’s called “the rocket docket”) and the decision goes against him, naturally, but the only part that Nash hears is the judge’s pronouncement that he has 30 days to appeal his eviction. He tries to explain this to Carver when he appears on his front porch—but the realtor has heard it all before. He gives Nash and his mother two minutes—that’s two minutes—to scramble around collecting their valuables before Carver sends in his crew to clear out the family’s other belongings and dump them—furniture, plants, pictures and all—on the front lawn.

It’s a wrenching scene, and variations of it are repeated throughout 99 Homes as the homeowners’ rightful panic gets underlined by the film’s tension-filled music score—an entirely unnecessary way to make the point, for we’re already on edge just watching the reactions of the evictees. They represent a good cross-section of the bankrupt middle class: the meek ones who quietly take a “cash for keys” offer of $3,500 to vacate their premises; the aged and demented widows or widowers who have no idea what’s happening to them, and the families who simply can’t grasp the concept of immediate eviction. Most often, however, Carver encounters the belligerent types who fight back—sometimes with firearms—against what they see as an unjust system.

Dennis Nash is, of course, one of the fighters—although he’s more relentless than most, for he actually tracks down Carver to make his case. But the realtor is not interested in helping Nash save his home; what he needs is someone who’ll take $200 cash to clean out the crap (literally) in a foreclosed home. When Nash accepts this unpleasant job and talks others into helping him, Carver sees Nash in a new light—as a potential protégé, a guy who has the smarts and the drive to take over some of the realtor’s other dirty work. 99 Homes, then, becomes the Faustian tale of an ordinary good guy whose desperation leads him to go against everything he believes and make that deal with the devil.

Nash works his way up from ripping off government lenders (by stealing appliances and AC units so Carver can resell them) to actually evicting the kind of homeowner he once was. All the while he’s living in a rundown motel with his mother and son—who don’t know about Nash’s shady but lucrative work for Carver until one of the families he evicted shows up at the same motel. Faced with his mother’s disbelief and disgust, Nash is nearly brought down by shame and humiliation. But he pulls himself together and gets back on the job, for, as Carver once told him, “When you come to work for me, you’re mine.” 

Yes, the script by director Ramin Bahrani and his co-writer Amir Naderi stacks the deck on the side of the 99% of Americans who have no share in 99% of the nation’s wealth. But by focusing on the bottom feeders in the foreclosure crisis—instead of the banks with all their complicated loan packages—99 Homes is better able to pack a powerful emotional wallop, making it a truly effective parable for our times.

Even so, 99 Homes is still a movie—and it’s a really good one with excellent performances from the two leads. Andrew Garfield reveals here the potential to be a 21st-century “everyman,” the kind of guy Jimmy Stewart used to play. And Michael Shannon—well, his Rick Carver is simply astounding, a scary but intelligent and complex human being, and one of the most memorable screen villains we’re likely to meet this year.

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