'99 Homes' a Passionate Powerhouse

99 Homes
(USA, 112 min.)
Dir. Ramin Bahrani, Writ. Ramin Bahrani, Amir Nedari, Bahareh Azimi
Starring : Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern
Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon star in 99 Homes.
Courtesy VVS Films.

Will the housing crisis ever level off? The Occupy-era drama 99 Homes resonates long after the market crash as everyday citizens still find themselves reeling after the economic downturn caused by American greed. This drama from Ramin Bahrani (At Any Price) delivers an emotional wallop thanks to a trio of searing performances and a smartly crafted script that stings with the bitter defeat of the USA housing crash. 99 Homes is a passionate powerhouse.

99 Homes puts a human face on the housing crash as Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) works construction, but since the housing market is going belly-up, he works gigs for contracts that never pay him, which means he can’t pay the bank and settle the mortgage on his family home. He goes to court and pleads his case to keep the house (it’s worth noting that there’s nowhere to go to correct the matter of his lost wages) and the judge declines his offer, orders an eviction, and moves on down the line. It’s all done coldly and impersonally, especially when real estate broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) shows up at the Nash’s door with the sheriff and kicks the family to the curb.

As Dennis pack up with his son Connor (Noah Lomax) and his mom, Lynn (Laura Dern), the Nashes find themselves stranded at a motel, a pseudo-refugee camp for the homeless as dozens of people like them have nowhere else to go. Dennis, desperate, picks up the phone and hits the road in search of work. His family needs its home back.

In a cruel twist, the only man offering a job is Carver. Dennis reluctantly takes the job assisting with evictions and repairing foreclosed houses. The film complicates matter by thrusting Dennis into work that is clearly illegal as Carver tasks him with removing air conditioners and appliances from vacated homes so that he can get them at a better deal and then sell back the appliances to the government and received a bigger check. Films about the housing crash and economic crisis are often shy to argue that the dealmakers profiting on the misery of others are breaking the law, but 99 Homes shows that Americans profiting from the crisis are committing legal crimes in addition to moral and ethical ones.

Bahrani shakes a deftly balanced cocktail of passion and rage as 99 Homes tells the simple yet complex story of the Nash family as they lose their family home and try to gain in back. Avoiding sensationalism and soapboxing, 99 Homes makes an urgent case that the average American got screwed by a broken system that rewards people willing to exploit the vulnerabilities of their neighbours for their own greed. The film immediately stirs a familiar anger when Carver and the sheriffs evict the Nashes from their home, and the intensity of the emotional build and build until it reaches an inevitable tipping point.

The job never gets easier and 99 Homes doesn’t let Dennis off the hook for the moral abyss into which he falls by siding with Carver to save himself. As he removes families from their homes, sees babies cry in the street, and listens to fathers make the same pleas he made to the judge, Bahrani infuses a sense of betrayal to 99 Homes as the film evokes the sense that a moral and ethical option should prevail over an economic one, no matter how sound it may be. The excellent script by Behrani, Amir Nedari, and Bahareh Azimi concisely sums up the ideological divide that separates the one percent from the ninety-nine as Carver repeats the mantra, “Don’t get emotional about real estate.” He can kick people the curb because a house is just wood and bricks to him. It’s a transaction, a piece of merchandise, or inventory: a house is not a home. People do get emotionally attached to these wood and concrete boxes though. Just ask any parent who considers the idea of selling the house in which they raised their kids.

Garfield offers a compelling performance as Dennis wrestles with his duty to provide and his complicity in putting his neighbours in the same awful situation he struggles to escape. Rarely does one believe bureaucrats when they sympathetically tell clients that they know how they feel, but every case Dennis works that brings his family closer to their home by removing families from their homes offers a pang of anguish, guilt, and shared pain as Garfield’s character remorsefully becomes a product of the system that damns him.

Michael Shannon gives a performance that merits Best Supporting Actor consideration for his unnervingly villainous turn as Carver. An angry, brooding, greedy sleazebag, Shannon’s real estate broker embodies all the facets of the one percent that one loves to hate. The sheer pleasure Carver derives from accumulating wealth and properties is disgusting, and as Shannon toys with Carver’s e-cigarette and coldly approaches the foreclosures on a purely transactional level, he creates a morally bankrupt monster that seems invincible. 99 Homes offers Shannon some great lines as Carver extols the power one has in wielding such privilege and there’s almost a sadistic trait to the meanness that percolates under his character’s skin. This film has a great villain in Shannon’s icy outlaw.

The film gets a strong emotional shot from Laura Dern in the smaller, but pivotal role as Lynn. Dern (a Cinemablographer favourite) is the heart of the film as Lynn embodies the idea of “home” to which longs to return. She devastates when she learns of Dennis’s betrayal, and the humaneness of Dern’s performance speaks for the countless Americans whom Dennis and Carver evict throughout the film.

99 Homes evokes a sense of American in a time of disparaging change much like Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air does with its series on confessions from Americans who lost their jobs during the economic crisis. 99 Homes creates this effect through the methodical montages of Dennis and Carver removing families from the homes or striking deals to give Americans meagre sums of cash for their keys. More and more families become homeless as Dennis finds himself closer to home, and much like George Clooney’s charismatic corporate downsizer, the endless loses take their toll as it becomes impossible to avoid identifying with fellow Americans. It’s a powerful portrait of a nation still recovering from a collective crisis.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

99 Homes screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne Nov. 13-15.