Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes is, like many movies before it, about a battle for a young man’s soul.
The young man in question is Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a down on his luck Floridian who still lives in his childhood home with his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and his son Connor (Noah Lomax). Connor’s mother is out of the picture (if she ever was even in the picture) and money is extremely tight. Early on, a construction job Dennis was working on abruptly gets shut down—the funding fell through.
It’s 2007, or thereabouts, right around the time the housing market crashed. Dennis keeps getting eviction notices, which he attempts to fight in court. And then one day, there’s a knock at the door—it’s a couple of cops, a few goons, and a tall, slickly-dressed man, a real estate agent named Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). They’ve come to evict Dennis and his family. Dennis and Lynn resist—they beg, they bargain, they shout. The camera swirls, the soundtrack seems to have its own nervous pulse. All the while, Carver is calm, above-it-all. It’s a devastatingly effective scene.
Humiliated and defeated, Dennis and Lynn have no choice but to stuff some essentials into suitcases and garbage bags, collect Connor as he gets off the school bus, and move to a motel.
“How long are you staying?” a motel neighbor asks.
“Just a few days,” Lynn says quickly.
“That’s what we said—two years ago,” the woman replies
The next day, Dennis wanders by Carver’s office, in search of some tools he believes were stolen from his house, and Carver senses something in him—ambition, smarts, and most importantly, desperation. He takes Dennis under his wing, teaching him how to make money off of other people’s misfortune.
Carver has a simple philosophy of life: Screw or be screwed. He says that America is a nation built “by the winners and for the winners.” If people are dumb enough to take out mortgages they can’t pay back; or put additions on their home they can’t afford, that’s their problem. Someone’s going to profit—why not him? (Carver is an equal opportunity exploiter—he takes advantage of loopholes to screw over Fannie Mae, too).
“Don’t get emotional about real estate,” he warns Dennis.
But of course, Dennis is already emotional. He’s emotional about getting back his family home. And he’s emotional about evicting a bunch of poor bastards who are in the exact position he was just in.
The scenes of the evictions are masterfully orchestrated by Bahrani. With just a few fleeting images—a confused old man; a mother with one baby in her arms and a toddler clinging to her hip; a freaked out Yuppie who can’t believe it’s happening to him—he shows us the devastation that the mortgage collapse wrought.
Dennis, meanwhile, is living large. First he’s able to get back into his old house, then he’s able to buy a much bigger, flashier one—a symbol of him losing touch with the things that really matter. But can he live with himself? When his mother asks him where the all money is coming from, he gives vague and cagey responses. He can’t even admit who he’s working for.
These are juicy, showy parts for the two male leads and they attack their roles with gusto. Garfield is all methody angst as Dennis—mumbly and bruised and wary. Shannon, who’s always been the kind of actor who can effortlessly seize control of a scene, is appropriately reptilian and seductive as Carver. But a few times I felt he laid it on a bit too thick. At one point, while Carver is describing his hardscrabble childhood, Shannon’s mouth actually twitches—twice.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s worst quality—its almost insanely retro sexism. (No, I don’t mean 2007 retro; I mean 1957 retro.) Although Dern’s character is clearly in her 40s (and don’t get me started on the infuriatingly small age gap between the actors playing mother and son: she’s 48; Garfield’s 32), the film treats her like a veritable invalid. While she operates a small haircutting practice out of the motel, the possibility that she might get a job, that the burden of feeding the family or putting a roof over their heads might fall on her is never even considered. The film is a patriarchal fantasy where only a male can provide for his family. Gross.
Still, 99 Homes is worth seeing, especially for the urgent, raw work by both the actors and Bahrani, and for what it says about the American economy. It’s a film that argues that the exploitation of the poor and weak is build right into the structure of capitalism. I’m pretty sure the 1-percent would agree.