Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes” authentically depicts corruption in the housing market in Florida through compelling characters shaped and affected by this underworld.
Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) works as an independent contractor who can do roofing, electric, and plumbing, but he struggles to find jobs and is behind on house payments. Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a sneering scam artist, shows up to Nash’s home to evict Nash, his mother (Laura Dern), and his son (Noah Lomax).
Following the eviction, Nash must take his family and the belongings he can fit in his truck to a motel. He desperately needs to find work and winds up being offered a job by Carver, the very man who has thrown his life into a downward spiral.
Nash’s self-interest in getting his family back into his home is far more important than holding on to any virtues. Carver slowly pulls Nash into the unethical world of flipping homes, short sales, and evictions.
Ramin Bahrani, who wrote and directed the film, expertly raises the stakes throughout the film. Every other scene finds Nash faced with the choice to act ethically or sacrifice his soul a bit more for his own personal gain. Each of these scenes also introduce a new element of how banks, realtors, and the government make millions off foreclosures, which further tests the morals of Nash.
Garfield brings an aching realism to the actor. One cannot help but empathize with a character, who chooses a quick path to earning money so he can get his home back from the bank. At the same time, the anguish in Garfield’s face, especially as he finds himself turning from victim to villain, leaves one rooting for his character to escape the darkness before it consumes him.
To get the audience inside Garfield’s head, Bahrani utilized a 24mm lens for intense close-ups. He was inspired by the wide angle shots of Jack Nicholson’s character in “Chinatown” and how it captured the character’s “inner moments.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Carver’s realtor character, who Shannon could not possibly infuse with more smarminess. Families have two minutes to remove any personal belongings they want to save, but it’s a “courtesy.” Because they’re being evicted, they are already trespassing, and he does not have to let them pack anything after they are told they’re home has been foreclosed.
Families move their belongings out to their lawn only to be immediately told by Carver they must move to the curb. Minutes later, Carver appears in their face again to inform them of the need for a moving truck or else in 24 hours their property will be removed by him.
Bahrani crafts Carver into a multi-dimensional lowlife. He has just enough power to exploit poor people but not too much to be divorced entirely from their world. Carver maintains people like Nash, who took out loans on their home they could not pay back, are to blame for turning his life into evictions. He did not always rely on throwing people out of their homes to make money.
Of course, Carver’s personal toil does not excuse the injustice he perpetrates. He takes full advantage of the rocket docket in Florida, where tens of thousands of cases are assigned to judges leading them to only give homeowners two to three minutes to make their case when fighting the bank. Carver sees poor and working class Americans, who borrowed against their homes, as criminals guilty of stealing while his choice to fleece the U.S. government of taxpayer bailout money to get rich is perfectly acceptable.
Laura Dern plays her role as a socially unstable but loving mother quite well. Nash’s mother, and to some extent his son, develop into the film’s moral compass. They do not shy from judging the decisions Nash justifies by claiming they are for his family.
“99 Homes” adds to Bahrani’s exceptional body of work as a filmmaker, and once again demonstrates why Roger Ebert went out of his way to praise Bahrani as a “new great American director.”
In particular, it builds on his 2013 film, “At Any Given Price,” which explored what happens to someone when they value expanding business over family. Dennis Quaid played Henry Whipple, a family farmer who sells genetically modified seeds from a Monsanto-like corporation so his enterprise remains the top business in Iowa.
Both films focus on crises of capitalism and the pressures lower class Americans experience to remain prosperous, even as rich and wealthy corporations rig the game against them. Situations test characters sense of right and wrong, and their ability to discern when they have gone from trying to survive to a greedy person no better than those who rule their lives.
While “99 Homes” is a story of corruption with a clear perspective on predators like Carver, the scumbag realtor and his co-conspirators never have any reason to fear consequences for their actions. No one making big money is going to be sent to jail. In fact, the police are helping banks throw people out of their homes. The biggest risk is someone might pull a gun and start shooting during their eviction. Such lawlessness only serves to amplify the tragedy of each scene.
Like Carver says, “America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners,” and, “by rigging a nation, of the winners, by the winners, and for the winners.”