A version of this review originally appeared in Kitchen Drawer: Volume 8, Issue 1. For more, visit kitchendrawer.net.
When my wife and I were in the market for our first home, the subprime mortgage crisis was in full effect. Many of the houses we looked at had recently been foreclosed on, and on many occasions, it was clear that the previous homeowners had departed in a fit of anger. Things were broken and holes were smashed in walls – the evidence of a final, helpless parting shot at the heartless banks that had evicted them. When I told people about this, the most common response I heard was one of disgust: “Ugh, how can people be so selfish? They should have paid their bills on time.” Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes is filled with disgust, too, but all of it is aimed at a system that reduces real, struggling people to numbers on a page.
From the very beginning of his career, Bahrani has devoted himself to highlighting the struggles of people movies often ignore: the hard-working immigrants of Man Push Cart and Goodbye Solo, and the neglected children of Chop Shop. As his profile has grown and he's started working with well-known actors, he's expanded his focus to include the powerful individuals responsible for the suffering of others. 99 Homes gives us a long, hard look into the eyes of a cold-blooded real estate operator... and into the eyes of his many victims.
The real estate operator is Rick Carver (Michael Shannon, Take Shelter), who used to help people buy homes and now specializes in removing people from their homes. He projects such stern authority that the police officers assisting him with evictions refer to him as “boss,” and his pitilessness is an essential part of his ability to get people out of their homes in an efficient manner. One of his latest targets is Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield, The Amazing Spider-Man), a recently-unemployed construction worker who has been unable to scrape together enough money for his recent mortgage payments. A judge had told Dennis that he had thirty days to file an appeal, but he doesn't have any documentation to back that up, and Rick refuses to grant him time to get it. Dennis, his mother (Laura Dern, Jurassic Park) and his son Connor (Noah Lomax, The Walking Dead) are given two minutes to gather their valuables before Rick and the police shove them out the front door.
In the days that follow, Dennis ends up finding an unlikely employment opportunity: he gets a job working for Rick. He dislikes the notion of working for the serpent that evicted him, but the pay is good and the work is steady. He starts with simple grunt work like moving furniture, but quickly reveals talents that inspire Rick to give him a promotion. It seems that Rick has a system of exploiting loopholes in government regulations to take advantage of struggling homeowners, and he could use Dennis' help in setting up these schemes and evicting the unsuspecting homeowners. The legality of this is questionable at best, but Dennis' paychecks keep getting bigger, so Dennis doesn't ask too many questions. Alas, as he spends one day after another ruining people's lives, it grows increasingly difficult for Dennis to live with himself.
There are echoes of Bahrani's exceptional At Any Price in this tale of a man being eaten alive by his guilty conscience – by the end of both stories, it doesn't really matter what happens, because a person's soul has already been infected. Like that movie, 99 Homes isn't always as elegant as it could be. The dialogue can be a little clunky at times, and certain scenes feel closer to sermons than actual conversations. However, there's a moral conviction here that tends to overwhelm those problems – a righteous anger at the way we treat people who need our compassion the most, and at our government's tendency to crack down on the helpless and forgive the powerful.
Shannon is a consistently intense actor, but there's an air of cavalier amorality in this performance that makes his work here feel a little different from everything else he's done. As his targets are dragged away kicking and screaming, he stands there calmly, casually enjoying his e-cigarette with the quiet confidence of an old-school movie gangster. He's cool and collected... right up until his bottom line is threatened, anyway. On the flip side, Garfield's performance is all raw-nerve emotion and open-faced sincerity: he can't look people in the eyes when he evicts them, because he knows they would recognize the shame he feels. Laura Dern has far less to do than an actor of her caliber deserves, but nobody plays deeply-felt concern as well as she does.
As I watched the film, I kept thinking of all of those busted walls and half-wrecked homes... and of all those disgusted, dismissive remarks people made. Bahrani recognizes the importance of making us look into the eyes of those people so we can see them for what they are: ordinary, struggling human beings with the sort of problems that could affect any of us at any time. Many of us could lose a job or suffer a health problem or make a bad investment that prevents us from being able to meet our obligations. No one deserves to be treated the way these people are treated. 99 Homes seems cynical about the possibility of change, but its bottomless humanity is the sort of thing that will be required if we ever hope to create a system that offers some semblance of compassion.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Year: 2015