Film and TV

Foreclosure Drama 99 Homes Thrills With Its Fury

Right up into the 1960s, the Hays Code demanded that criminals in American movies face punishment by the final reel, a stricture that, however well-intentioned, served to propagate our national myth: that the only route to success is hard work and decency. Crime still doesn’t pay, mostly, since on-screen crooks still tend to get busted just before the end credits. It’s in the movies’ middles, though, that something has changed. The lawbreaking life has come to look impossibly alluring: Consider the long vogue of the Scarface T-shirt, or the orgies in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Nobody will mistake Ramin Bahrani’s superbly acted hard-times morality play 99 Homes for a betrayal of the Hays ideal. Every shot, every beat, in this tale of an Orlando real-estate monster (Michael Shannon) profiting off foreclosures is a nail hammered into the indictment Bahrani is framing. Much of the crime here is straight-up legal, but Bahrani denies his villain or his audience any moment to relish the spoils: As soon as Shannon’s Rick Carver is alone in his own home, a mansion-like suburban monstrosity devoid of distinguishing characteristics, his wife complains of vile crank phone calls from the people whose misery funds his life’s chintzy opulence.

The film is more closing argument than portrait of life in the downturn, but it’s thrillingly vigorous in its damning. Carver explains to reluctant protégé Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) that houses are nothing to have feelings for — they’re just boxes, and all that matters is how many you own. To that end, Bahrani stages the drama in a long series of real houses, new and old, either emptied out or just about to be, emphasizing their drab sameness. As Carver and Nash’s crimes accumulate, going from merely immoral to out-and-out illegal, Bahrani and director of photography Bobby Bukowski’s compositions alienate them from the most familiar of American spaces: the family home.

Yet this is a film of stature and power, one whose sympathies are with the victims. An early scene, a raw long take, shows us Shannon’s hardhearted vulture leading the cops in the eviction of the family of Garfield’s nice-guy construction worker. The confrontation is ugly, grueling, compelling in its detailed nastiness. Carver and the cops, old pros, stick to their brusque eviction script, playacting that giving the family two minutes to clear out some valuables is a kindness. In response, the family — including Laura Dern as Nash’s mother — spins out helpless promises and furious insistences: There’s been a mistake; come back after we talk to our lawyers; you’re trespassing; and — finally, desperately — but this is our home.

Later, Nash, seeing no other way to raise the money to buy the house back, oversees evictions himself as Carver’s right-hand man. Bahrani is relentless in pushing us into these situations, smartly varying the settings and victims but always revealing the same messy drama.
Garfield is excellent in these scenes, making clear in each moment Nash’s pain, kindness and self-loathing.

But Nash also proves adept at the hustle, brainstorming with Carver how to scam government programs designed to aid homeowners — and soon graduating from handyman to something of a fixer, paying workers cash to steal A/C units from abandoned houses.

Still, Shannon dominates the film, but this isn’t one of his unknowable inhumans, like that self-flagellating federal agent on Boardwalk Empire. As Carver barks orders and chucks families out on the street, you can see that this man has had to work to grow so callous — that he’s willed himself mean, and though that meanness has won him millions, it’s still never easy.

99 Homes’ title could also have been the one Bahrani gave to his last picture: At Any Price. Bahrani shows what happens when it becomes more profitable to yoink away the American Dream than it is to encourage people to buy into it. Shannon shows us the toll that that yoinking etches in the face, the mind and the soul.