United States. Directed by Ramin Bahrani, 2014. Starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Clancy Brown. 112 minutes.
In the prosperous ’90s, the Florida real estate market boomed. Then the economy took a downturn: unemployment shot up, the national housing market collapsed. Families defaulted on mortgages, banks foreclosed, law enforcement evicted. The market flooded with dozens, perhaps hundreds of houses, but nobody could afford to buy them. Which doesn’t mean that money can’t be made in the Florida real estate market. Especially if you’re clever…and corrupt. Greed always finds a way.
That’s the environment in which Ramin Bahrani’s angry, politically-charged thriller 99 Homes takes place. Andrew Garfield stars as Dennis Nash, an unemployed construction worker and single dad who loses the house he grew up in to foreclosure…and then gets a chance to buy it back by working for Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the slick, predatory real estate agent representing the bank. Dennis soon finds his principles compromised as Carver increasingly relies on him to do his dirty work.
As with The Big Short, Adam McKay’s study of just what caused the housing market’s collapse, a distinctly uncomfortable vibe surrounds 99 Homes. Chances are, we all know someone affected by said collapse–maybe even ourselves. Dennis’s situation feels too familiar for comfort, and while we like to tell ourselves we would never betray our ethics in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, we know in our hearts that things aren’t quite that simple. Especially if we have mouths to feed.
Once we make it to the other side of the tracks, of course, it’s not like life suddenly becomes easier. The film’s publicity states that “Carver…slyly seduces [Dennis] into a lifestyle of wealth and glamour,” but these terms turn out to be, unsurprisingly, relative. Sure, Carver hobnobs with movers and shakers, cheats on his wife, and attends the occasional moderately wild party, most of what he does is work. If it takes hard work to get rich, it takes a lot more hard work to stay rich. And in a couple particularly vulnerable exchanges with Dennis, Carver explains why he needs to stay rich.
Carver and his motivation turn the film into something special, something more than a run-of-the-mill polemical thriller. I enjoyed it well enough in terms of story, even though its “deal-with-the-devil” style plot relies a bit too heavily on predictable narrative development and one or two all-too-convenient coincidences. Garfield does well, but I find it hard to shake the sense that he could do better. Laura Dern, as his mother, could do this sort of thing in her sleep. Shannon puts in the MVP performance here, interpreting Carver as a latter-day Gordon Gekko who knows he sold his soul. He could go over the top in so many scenes, but wisely chooses not to, underlining the character’s believability.
By humanizing the greed-driven Carver, Bahrani refuses to let us off the hook. Our culture turned Carver into who he is, 99 Homes seems to tell us, and it can do the same to us if we’re not careful.