“The foreclosure film ‘99 Homes’ serves stressful theatre”
Writer/director: Ramin Bahrani
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern
A bank foreclosing on a family’s home is a stressful nightmare for the household members in question. Not keeping up on mortgage payments, waiting for dreaded phone calls and staring at eviction notices plastered on one’s door is quite the opposite of dreams coming true. Even worse, the actual eviction – in which a real estate broker with two police officers suddenly appear at the front door and instruct the (now) former homeowners that they have two minutes to gather their belongings and leave the premises – is beyond gut-wrenching.
This is the early premise of “99 Homes”, and over the course of the 1 hour 52 minute film, it takes the audience on an even more traumatic ride. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) – a 30-something roofer who struggles to make ends meet in a difficult job market – is thrown out, along with his mom (Laura Dern) and son, of his modest Orlando home by Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) in the aforementioned life event. With shoddy credit and nowhere to turn except an equally shoddy motel, the Nash family begrudgingly accepts their new fate in a 500 square-foot room in a noisy and less than desirable area of town.
With no job prospects and his financial hole growing by the day, Dennis makes the truly unthinkable choice of working for Rick to make ends meet, which, quite frankly, feels like an inmate on death row making best friends with his executioner in the afterlife.
Writer/director Ramin Bahrani does not pull, but yanks on our empathy strings, as he portrays a man in desperate need of immediate solutions, but, unfortunately, only one ugly one appears in his narrow view of the world. While Bahrani sends Dennis on a questionable new career, he also presents a frank and brutal picture of the real estate business during the recent housing collapse. According to Rick, in a world of winners and losers, America is about bailing out and celebrating the winners, and he intends – using legal and illegal methods – on financially keeping his victorious standing in a sick market.
The filmmakers perfectly casted Shannon as Carver. He has a knack for playing off-center, caustic characters, and with Rick’s morally bankrupt (pardon the pun) persona mixed with a bit of sociopath, Shannon plays a fearsome and distrustful on-screen villain. For example, when a random foreclosed homeowner takes his own life, Rick nonchalantly shrugs, “I can’t bring him back to life.”
For Rick, he simply is a vulture praying on the dead carcasses in any Orlando subdivision and insists he owns the moral high-ground, because he did not create the problem. For Garfield, this is his first film role since he lost his Spidey-suit in “The Amazing Spider-Man” series, but he clearly has a bright future ahead. He is highly-effective in delivering nearly two-hours of Dennis’s self-doubt, anguish and pain, and it leads with the film’s first 10-15 minutes when the camera is transfixed on his face. His character feels completely powerless inside his own home and then standing outside of it, and we feel it too.
Bahrani makes other smart decisions by featuring timely close-ups of Dennis’s mom, son and Rick, as the actors and director work in concert to present the lambs experiencing the slaughter at the hands of the Big Bad Wolf. “99 Homes” is a nerve-racking story which kept this critic’s palms sweating for almost two hours, and the end result works as an emotional, although also unpleasant, movie experience.
With Dennis making three key mistakes down this inexplicable road, Bahrani spins a yarn that seems destined for doom. “99 Homes” reminds me of 1998’s “A Simple Plan” where the leads make one terrible decision, and it snowballs into an avalanche of tension with an apparent date with ugly destiny. With a great script, elevated performances and Dennis’s simple – but wrong-headed – plan, the film creates havoc on our sensibilities about a time – in the not too distant past – that made very little sense. (3/4 stars)