Real estate can be a bloody business. A dirty, bloody and soul-sucking business. Especially in 2010, the year in which the housing crisis thriller 99 Homes is set. It’s rich cinematic territory to be mined for drama: There’s the understandably emotional concept of home and hearth, the symbol of family and the American dream. In opposition, there are the banks and realtors who only see numbers on a balance sheet and addresses on a map, commodities to be shuffled and traded, squeezed of every last possible dollar.
Director and co-writer Rahmin Bahrani stages the film in a way that foregrounds the horror inherent in the nasty business of foreclosures and evictions, with the vultures offering cash for keys circling the carrion of homeowners behind on payments. The first eviction we witness is hard to watch, the handheld camera lurking queasily in the background, a party to one of the worst days of this family’s life. The family in question is Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), his son Connor (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern). Despite fighting the foreclosure in court, cops show up on his door with a shady real estate agent, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), in tow to toss the family and their belongings on the lawn.
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It’s rough stuff, stomach-turning, and Garfield surprises in the role of the single dad and working class construction laborer driven to the brink. Backed into a corner, desperate just to survive, Dennis searches for any job he can get, and there aren’t many. The one person offering him up cash for labor is Rick, and despite his aversion to the unfeeling real estate shark, Dennis has no choice. With his willingness to do any kind of work, he becomes Rick’s right-hand man, diving deep into the very same business that threw his family on the street.
Shannon’s more feral qualities are smoothed over with the slick trappings of an Orlando real estate mogul: Range Rover, mistress, coif. Though he is condemned for it, you can see why Dennis is drawn to him. He speaks in codes, law and numbers, far from the messy melodrama that embroils the rest of Dennis’ life. He offers the chance to make real money, more than the couple hundred bucks that Dennis can scrape up.
But Rick’s much savvier than you might take him for. He’s highly attuned to the forces that create these situations, booming at Dennis that “America was built on bailing out winners!” He comes from nothing, and he has vowed to never end up like his father, screwed by the system.
Garfield brings deep wells of empathy to his performance that demonstrate Dennis might not be cut out for this line of work. His optimism and altruism are his best qualities, and the ones that mean he’ll never be able to live Rick’s life.
The film eventually drifts away from the more interesting, complicated and difficult story of survival and individual choices, towards moralistic judgments on the honesty of the work, which is the less compelling question in this matter of life and death.
Still, 99 Homes is one of the scariest films you’ll see all year. Though it’s a period piece, it’s recent history, and there’s no reason why this might not happen again.
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Tim Guinee, Noah Lomax.
Director: Ramin Bahrani.
Screenwriters: Ramin Bahrani, Amir Naderi.
A Broad Green Pictures release. Running time: 110 minutes. Vulgar language, brief bloody images. Playing at area theaters.