99 Homes is not your typical heartstrings-tugging movie that usually pops up around Oscar season. Yet no scene this year has had quite the emotional impact on me as the eviction of a confused old man from his foreclosed upon house. As he desperately and muddledly tries to explain the mortgage he and his wife took out just before the 2008 financial crisis, the heart-wrenching human impact of the irresponsibility of the world’s banks becomes astoundingly clear, cementing 99 Homes as one of 2015’s must-see films. By a long way the most high-profile film yet from writer/director Ramin Bahrani, it marks him out as someone to watch very closely in the future.
The ever-brilliant Michael Shannon is at his absolute best here as near-sociopathic real estate mogul Rick Carver, hired by the banks to do their dirty work of forcing families out of their homes. We first meet him as he surveys the aftermath of an eviction gone very badly wrong, moving smoothly throughout a long single take, like one of the alligators inhabiting the waters near the Florida Keys homes he’s continually repossessing. Compelling despite his obvious and all too real villainy, Shannon’s Carver is the perfect embodiment of opportunistic America, ruining lives within a two-minute period and then having the gall to tut and shake his head when the evictees don’t fully cooperate.
Set in 2010, the ostensible ‘hero’ of 99 Homes is Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a construction worker who becomes the latest in the long line of Carver’s victims, forced to move from his family home to a cheap motel. After violently confronting one of Carver’s employees, Nash falls under the wing of the man who stole his house, first doing odd construction jobs, before becoming his reluctant protégé. He eventually becomes a key player in a massive property deal to sell 100 homes to a developer, with an eye on a further thousand after that.
Nash knows that he’s working for the enemy, and evicting people never comes naturally to him, with his inclination to give as much assistance as he can to the newly-homeless families only making them hate him more. But he’s the sole provider for his young son Connor (impressive newcomer Noah Lomax) and his mum, Lynn (Laura Dern). He needs to get them out of the motel and into the life they deserve, and very soon after joining Carver’s organisation, he’s making serious money. We should start to see Nash as a loathsome figure, but he’s fighting back against a system that screwed millions of people, and making some extra cash for his unemployed friends while he’s at it.
That we, for the most part, stay on Dennis’ side is a testament to Andrew Garfield’s measured yet powerful performance. This is the best Garfield has been since The Social Network, and he manages to hold his own in all his scenes with Shannon. An exchange between the two of them after a drunken party is superb, all subtle defensiveness and probing questions disguised as friendly banter. They never come close to becoming friends, and Bahrani completely avoids the cliché of having Nash’s honesty and goodness get through to Carver and make him more moral. In another film, this may be a criticism, but Shannon is so good in the role of the unapologetic villain that he has no need to be a better man.
Laura Dern is also great as the film’s moral centre, frustratingly naïve in Dennis’ eyes, but also completely justified in all her complaints about her son’s increasingly unethical behaviour. For the first two-thirds of the film, you may be inclined to dismiss her opinions as too moralistic to be practicable in this new, economically uncertain world, but the second that poor old man is thrown to the curb with no mercy or support, it becomes far more difficult to justify Nash’s actions. Lynn sees her fellow motel-dwellers, mostly ‘people like us’, evicted without ceremony, turn from friendly neighbours to murderously angry enemies once Dennis’ identity as Carver’s new lackey is revealed.
The third act experiences some notable pacing problems (certain plot threads and scenes needed some extra trimming) that stop 99 Homes from being a full five star film, but it’s still one of this year’s most vital movies. By humanising the financial crisis, portraying it through bewildered families left on the street with piles of their belongings rather than constant shots of stats on screens, Bahrani touches on one of the most powerful problems of modern America with grace and emotional honesty. If only all ‘issue’ movies could be this good.