99 Homes is a film that’s quite likely to get under your skin, to scare you and/or anger you with its surreal images of families forcibly uprooted from their homes, their lives and memories built within the walls and rooms of their houses regarded as less than meaningless by the people who stand to profit by working the very system that left those families homeless. It should prove especially tough to watch for Floridians, some of whom are still living through the foreclosure crisis that serves as the film’s backdrop. But even for those outside the Sunshine State who invest any emotional meaning into what the very word “home” means, its story and images may prove to be as unnerving as any horror film or suspense thriller, thanks to a strong, character-driven script and stand-out performances from its leads, Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Michael Shannon (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire“, Man of Steel).
Shannon plays Orlando real estate broker Rick Carver, who in 2010, in the aftermath of the real estate bubble bursting with devastating effect across the country and in particular in Florida, has turned taking families out of homes via bank foreclosure and eviction into a seemingly unending supply of cash and profit. His success and wealth comes with a price, of course: his work often leads to ugly confrontations with homeowners suddenly faced with having to vacate their homes in minutes under the scrutiny of county law enforcement, and watch strangers enter their home and dump all their belongings on what was previously their front yard. Carver insists he’s not the one taking their homes away — it’s the banks, and he’s just their licensed representative — but the fear and hostility borne of his arrival and his unwillingness to show pity has led him to, among other precautions, carry a handgun in an ankle holster at all times. Carver is wholly unapologetic about what he does and the aggressiveness with which he does it. He’s simply figured out how to be a winner in a system that’s been rigged by winners to favor winners — in his mind, if you haven’t figured out what he has, then you’re a loser and not his problem.
One of the “losers” he encounters in the course of his work is Dennis Nash (Garfield), a single father whose work and income in construction has completely dried up as developers have stopped building homes in the wake of the crisis. Unable to forestall the bank foreclosing on the home he grew up in with his mother, Lynn (Laura Dern) and in which he’s raising his own son Connor (Noah Lomax), Nash, like so many others, begs and pleads to Carver and the sheriff’s deputies at his door to put them on the street for more time, to no avail. But a second encounter between the two men leads Carver to notice something potentially useful in the prideful, tenacious Nash, and he offers the desperate young man a chance to learn to do what Carver does and thus turn his fortunes around. Reluctant at first to be an agent of the process that just recently victimized him, Nash accepts only when he comes to see it as a chance to buy back his family’s home from Carver. The Faustian bargain struck, Nash begins his education in the shady ins and outs of making cash off of the government and the banks while acting as their representative in evicting families from homes, all without telling his mom or Connor that he’s gone to work for the same man that took their home away.
But as the money starts to roll in, the secrets pile up, the work gets more dangerous, and it gets more and more difficult for Nash to rationalize what he’s doing to people just like him, except they’re desperate enough to resort to violence. For Carver, who killed his own soul in order to make a killing in this land of opportunity, the escalating tensions are just a part of what they do. But for Nash, who still has his own soul and his family to lose, it becomes a question of just how far he’s willing to go, and how much longer can he justify doing the work by saying it’s for the family he has to hide that work from every day.
Andrew Garfield is quite good here as the desperate but still conscientious Nash, who finds out early on that the odious work he’s taken on as Carver’s protegé never gets easier, and for whom the struggle to keep doing it is visible in his every physical expression. But without question the performer who drives 99 Homes is Michael Shannon. His is a performance that’s likely to remind audiences of Michael Douglas’s original take on Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s original 80’s cautionary tale of greed and corruption, Wall Street, only here, rather than the villains being the New York financial sector masters of the universe, it’s the bottom-feeder opportunists who took advantage of the subprime mortgage crisis to make millions off the plight of consumers defaulting on bad loans that they never had a prayer of paying off in the first place. Shannon’s take on Carver is masterful in that he’s entirely loathsome as “the bad guy” while still not being a caricature of a human being. He makes this work by injecting just enough self-awareness into Carver for audiences to see in his eyes that the man knows on some deep level what he’s doing is horribly, horribly wrong, but he’s spent so much time and energy justifying his actions to himself and others that he truly believes his own rationalizations. Carver doesn’t like hurting people or destroying lives, but he does like making money and not being on the short end of the stick when it comes to opportunity. Adding that level of nuance makes the evil Shannon brings to life in Carver relatable, believable, and all the more hateable all at once.
Director Ramin Bahrani, who also came up with the story for 99 Homes and co-wrote the script with writer/director Amir Naderi, puts his characters through the emotional wringer in one heart-wrenching scene after the next, often using non-actors to portray the many nameless families being forced out of their homes as well as the law enforcement agents called upon to clear them out. He keeps the cameras focused squarely on the shell-shocked looks on their faces as they carry baskets of belongings away from what was once their properties, or the impotent rage that explodes when they try to refuse to leave and their pleas for more time and explanations of appeals and lawyers working on their behalf fall on deaf ears, and the effect is (or at least it should be) pure horror. Along with the body of work turned in by Shannon, it’s in these moments that the film is most evocative and memorable; there is a “thriller” aspect to the film that’s seeded early on and leads to a somewhat forced and contrived finale, but as well as that’s staged, it’s the one part of the film that feels like Hollywood melodrama. By then, however, 99 Homes has likely already made its mark on you, and it’s just one more gut-punch of a scene in a film that’s full of them.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Noah Lomax, and Laura Dern. Directed by Ramin Bahrani.
Running Time: 112 minutes
Rated R for language including some sexual references, and a brief violent image.