The 2008 U.S. housing crisis becomes ground zero for the dissolution of The American Dream in the gripping econo-thriller 99 Homes. In a remarkable feat of making seemingly mundane material appointment viewing, writer-director Ramin Bahrani manages to wring every ounce of tension out of the ticking clock of impending foreclosures and evictions, creating a sometimes heavy-handed but thoroughly engrossing examination of a family trying to keep itself together while the country fell apart.
In a timely analogue to another movie about the recent financial crisis, 99 Homes is like the Florida scenes from The Big Short (that showed investors coming to the realization that homeowners were headed for disaster) expanded to a feature film that details the horrific aftermath and loss of humanity that comes with losing your home. The human face of that tragedy here is Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield, sporting 3-day stubble), a single father trying and failing to find work, despite being a skilled contractor. As his options dry up and no help is forthcoming, Dennis along with his young son Connor and mother Lynn (Laura Dern) are evicted from their home and given two minutes to collect their belongings as they’re now trespassing on bank property.
Complicit in those evictions is slick local realtor Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), one of the few to profit off the crisis as he buys up foreclosed properties and exploits government loopholes for gain. Rick’s introduced in a frantic opening sequence that sees him protecting his assets (namely a newly purchased home seized from an evicted family) in the moments immediately following the suicide of the former owner. If his extreme self-interest wasn’t clear from the first frame, he says things like “America doesn’t bail out losers!” while driving increasingly extravagant cars and vaping.
As Rick and some cops evict Dennis and his family from their home, it seems clear that the central conflict will be between the crass businessman and the soulful down-on-his-luck contractor, but Bahrani wisely sidesteps convention with a story that’s reminiscent of Breaking Bad or a horror film rather than a dry procedural. The interesting spin is that Dennis, having had his tools stolen by Rick’s men while relocating to a motel, confronts Rick’s workers and in the process gets a job from Rick that he can’t refuse.
The humiliation comes early as Dennis volunteers to clear a sewage-filled house in the hopes of starting to earn money to buy his house back. He makes a deal with the devil by working with Rick and the movie then devolves, in careful and fascinating fashion, into the gradual erosion of Dennis’ soul under the tutelage of Rick. Things quickly escalate as Dennis begins removing water pumps and appliances from vacant homes so Rick can sell them back to Fannie May at a profit, with Dennis eventually having to evict families just like his own, as Garfield’s watery eyes show the inner conflict that Dennis experiences at having to upend people’s lives.
There’s a righteous anger at the heart of the film, often given voice in the shell-shocked people that Dennis and Rick evict. But Bahrani doesn’t allow for over-simplification even as his movie depicts the confused desperation and numb acceptance of people sliding down the socioeconomic scale. Dennis is put in an impossible situation, taking the only option available to try and win back his beloved home and keep his family whole. Even Rick, who could be the 21st century version of a cigar-chomping villain (i.e. a vapist) is painted in shades of grey as he tries to provide justifications for his actions late in the film.
In a way they’re all victims of circumstance, though they still have the ability to decide how they deal with these horrible situations. Rick chooses to make money (“They built homes, I own homes”) while telling Dennis not to let his emotions get in the way or be taken in the allure of property. Dennis takes the easy money that Rick is offering, but still feels the tug of a moral compass even as his old house comes back within his grasp. The simmering conflict of the two men’s opposing worldviews bubbles to the surface when a sadly routine eviction sparks a violent standoff and tragedy looms.
99 Homes is an urgent movie about desperate people, hammered home by the superb central performances. Garfield is empathetic and heart-breaking, underplaying key motivations and allowing for a thoughtful and conflicted character to emerge. Shannon is unsurprisingly great as the villain, bringing humanity to a role that might’ve lacked it under a lesser actor. The thrumming music also adds a layer of anxiety, as the movie’s careful plotting winds on towards its conclusion.
At times the characters spout dialogue that sounds less natural and more like preachy screenwriting, but for the most part the tone is carefully modulated. There’s some real Chekhov’s gun logic at play too, as every action has a reaction and there’s no real wasted screentime. That karmic retribution seems central to the movie’s soul too, as impotent victims gain agency by fighting back against the tide of misfortune. Just as its title evokes the 99% who could rise up in anger against the 1%, 99 Homes seems to say: you know that guy you screwed over last week? While he’s back, he’s pissed, and he has a gun.
Not only does 99 Homes act as an effective thriller that charts the human wreckage of the housing crisis and the ensuing financial collapse, but it also seems to suggest that what goes around comes around, perhaps as a way to rationalize everything that’s gone wrong.
99 Homes (2015)
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Runtime: 112 minutes