The 21st century financial crisis has been fertile ground for the cinematic world. Films like JC Chandor’s Margin Call, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly or Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace have taken this change in climate in stride, sometimes directly dealing with the crash itself, sometimes through its ripple effect into the job market of the middle and lower classes. Improprieties in the housing market and the rise of subprime mortgages was one of the chief causes of the collapse, and those predatory practices have been placed directly in the crosshairs of director Ramin Bahrani’s new film 99 Homes.
Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield in his first post-Spider-Man role) is an honest, motivated construction worker forced to come to grips with the evaporating housing market causing his projects to dry up. His mother’s (Laura Dern) hairdressing business is not bringing in enough cash to keep them ahead on their mortgage, and soon the worst that can happen comes in the form of Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), an unscrupulous real estate magnate who specializes in foreclosed homes and evictions. Stripped of his family home and forced to live in a motel with his mother and young son, Dennis soon finds himself making a deal with the devil when Carver offers him some short term construction jobs for quick cash. As his tasks become more and more underhanded and quite possibly illegal, and as he finds himself doing the very things that were done to him in order to get the money to get his house back, Dennis must decide how far he is willing to go to help his family.
99 Homes feels like the sort of film Andrew Garfield used to make prior to being swept up into the superhero-industrial complex in the form of two underwhelming Amazing Spider-Man movies. Prior to that, he rose to prominence through films like The Social Network, Never Let Me Go and Red Riding 1974 in 2009 and 2010. He did fine work in those Spider-Man films, but they never felt of the same caliber of the work he had been doing prior. This is a much more complex turn, one that requires him to juggle his desire to repair his broken life with the harsh realities of getting that money from the man who put him on the street in the first place. Michael Shannon remains his consistently immaculate self, spitting the sort of fire he always does in roles like this, but in between the bluster, he also softens his demeanor to draw in those around him. Shannon effortlessly plays his devil with both a silver tongue and fire and brimstone, wielding his immense power and influence to bend the world to his will. The beauty of Shannon’s performance is that when he says he never wanted to get into the eviction business but the market forced his hand, it’s hard not to believe him. But he’s such a remorseless cad that all it does is foment ambivalence.
Bahrani’s agenda is clear throughout 99 Homes. To call it polemical would not be unwarranted. This is a film about working class people’s lives being ruined by banks and real estate moguls from the comfort of board rooms and skyscrapers while the working men and women whose lives they destroy fight vainly in courtrooms and branch lobbies pitched against them. Garfield’s character is the bridge, a man who exists in both worlds even as the lure of money and bigger, better houses pulls him further toward the dark side. The consequences of his actions ripple through his family and environment in predictable ways (he is still living in the motel full of evictees while evicting others, after all), and the emotional anguish of it all consistently takes center stage. Bahrani’s sympathies never leave the side of the downtrodden, even as their actions become more violent and dangerous. They are most directly represented by Frank Green (Tim Guinee), an honest man pushed to the brink whose plight becomes the setting for the film’s climax.
This is the moment where 99 Homes bubbles over into pure histrionics, and even becomes a bit problematic. The Green character shifts in a major and arguably incongruous way that seems to be purely due to the needs of the script. Action dictated by plot over character is always a disappointing move for a script, one that trades conviction for convenience. This happens from time to time in 99 Homes, though never more than during its finale, and while it serves a purpose of ratcheting up his central thesis concerning the failings of banks and real estate in the aftermath of the housing crisis, but it also takes away from some of the impact of that same theme when it feels too structured. Luckily, though, the performances of Garfield and Shannon are what linger in the mind as the credits roll, and their work is more than enough to bolster the film as it lags in other aspects. Bahrani can get carried away from time to time, but the core of 99 Homes is strong.