Michael Shannon’s character Rick Carver spouts some great lines in the tense and heartbreaking new film from Ramin Bahrani, 99 Homes. At one point he tells his morally conflicted protégé in crooked evictions and house flipping, Dennis Nash (played by Andrew Garfield, raw but with a somewhat questionable Southern accent), “America doesn’t bail out losers. America bails out winners. It was made of, for and by winners.” Yeah, eff the People! No…what? Wait a minute. It was moments like that, where sitting in a near empty theater on the weekend of this indie’s wider release into multiplexes, I thought that a savvier studio would be playing the line in endless teaser loops and marketing this as the flip side to Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. Maybe that would’ve gotten more people into the seats. But the wounds 99 Homes pours salt on are too fresh… and as successful as it is from a tactical perspective (well-written, well-acted, well-directed and timely), I don’t know if this could ever be a financial hit.
In the fall-out of the housing crisis, Florida-based construction worker/everyday handyman Dennis Nash suddenly has no new homes to build and loses the one he shares with his part-time hairdresser Mom (Laura Dern – the epitome of lower-middle class optimism and angst) and young son (Noah Lomax) to foreclosure. Into his life steps the non-nonsense, slick-talking, worn down but looking up real-estate agent, Rick Carver, who evicts default homeowners and then runs crooked deals to flip the houses where he screws the banks and the government (and anyone else who he crosses paths with). Carver offers Nash a helping hand, but it’s akin to making a deal with the devil, and he keenly warns Nash, “Real estate should never be personal. Don’t get sentimental about a house. It’s just a box.” But it’s a box that represents the American Dream for so many, who through predatory lending practices, got screwed out of their homes after the housing bubble crash of 2008 that sent the US and the world tumbling into the Great Recession.
Here we get front row seats as Carver and Nash kick people out of their homes in heartbreakingly real scenes of economic and emotional tragedy. An elderly widow loses his home to a reverse mortgage. Another family gets kicked out due to defaulting on a toxic home equity line for an addition they didn’t need and no ethical bank should’ve funded. And it’s in these scenes where the film is at its best, and ironically becomes it own worst enemy, as many people will not want to sit this the all-too-real dramatization of recent history that still isn’t finished. Lending practices may have tightened, but many are still wallowing in the aftermath, and the lasting impression of unfairness remains. The stock market may have rallied in the years since, but the average Joe still feels like shit.
Bahrani, who previously helmed the superb cross-cultural and generational character study, Goodbye Solo, directs 99 Homes like a thriller with hand-held camera-work, classic dissolves and edits (one shot of Nash seemingly trapped under the reflection of pool water is overtly symbolic) and a tense music score from Antony Partos and Matteo Zingales. Where Goodbye Solo’s story was allowed to breathe and meditate, 99 Homes churns and chokes, full of heartburn and stomach churning emotion. He’s created somewhat of a minor miracle – an edge-of-our-seat tear-jerker. Without revealing the details, he ends the film with a message that seems to be saying the only way out of this mess if for people to start being honest with each other.
Meanwhile, Shannon haunts without chewing the scenery and Garfield’s tenuous interactions with the peripheral characters ruined by the crooked system that allowed someone like Carver to thrive puts a human face on the numbers that defined our most recent economic collapse. It’s powerful, sobering stuff, but just like applying for a mortgage that’s supposed to fulfill a dream, it’s hard to enjoy the process.
Written by David H. Schleicher