“99 Homes” is the “Training Day” of the real estate industry. A dramatic thriller set in 2010 Orlando, the film introduces us to Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a ruthless broker at the scene of a suicide in a recently foreclosed-upon property. It’s just one of many pit-stops in a busy day of evicting people from their homes. Cleaning up by picking up Fannie/Freddie properties for a song while getting reimbursed by the government for stolen materials that he uses for renovations, we see that Carver is not only opportunistic, he’s a cut-throat crook. One of his foreclosures belongs to Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a hard-working contractor who’s just lost his job due to the decline in new construction. Dennis lives with his mother (Laura Dern) and 12(ish)-year-old son Connor (Noah Lomax) in a cozy neighborhood, but as the film’s scope widens we see that the suburban sprawl is more like the Wild West for predators like Carver. Orlando was one of the hardest-hit cities, so it’s a fitting microcosm for the crisis.
But writer/director Ramin Bahrani (“At Any Price”) isn’t in it to teach an economics class (I highly recommend “The Big Short” for prep viewing). This raw, intelligent and emotional flick is all about the characters, and boasts two of the year’s best performances, courtesy of Garfield and Shannon. With nowhere to turn, Nash and family end up in a fleabag motel that resembles a foreclosure fallout shelter, an unsustainable living condition by most measures. But jobs are virtually nonexistent. Not afraid to get his hands dirty, Nash finds himself picking up construction work for the same heartless bastard that put him in his desperate spot. Carver sees potential in Nash–in part because he’ll wade into a river of shit to fix a septic malfunction when none of his dim-witted minions will, but mainly because of his ingenuity–thus taking him under his wing like Palpatine seducing Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side. “When you work for me,” he growls, “you’re mine”.
Sucked into Carver’s sketchy but lucrative enterprise, Nash becomes enticed by his lavish lifestyle, at first questioning Carver’s ethics, but eventually convincing himself that he’s doing right by his family. Quickly, Nash finds himself knocking on doors with the all-too-eager Sheriff’s department in tow, a dangerous task that justifies an open-carry gun permit (if that sounds far-fetched, Bahrani’s research says otherwise). But kicking people to the curb doesn’t come as naturally to him as it does Carver, particularly when he ends up at the home of one of his son’s classmates and father (Tim Guinee), who gets busted stealing water and electricity from one of Carver’s neighboring properties.
“99 Homes” (now in between its theatrical release and slated February 9th DVD/VOD availability) is one of the best films of the year, an intense and unsparing drama. Shannon is sensationally wicked as a businessman who will stop at nothing to expand his empire, though his character is not without depth. One particularly compelling speech gives some insight into his background, a sob story told by a sociopath. Garfield runs the gamut of emotions, from enraged and desperate to grateful to conflicted to morally compromised, and eventually regretful. The excellent script from Bahrani and Amir Naderi (from a story by Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi) is minimalist in composition but meaty in dialogue, perfect for the two leads as their dynamic shifts from predator/victim to employer/employee to criminal/accomplice. Not to mention Dern, who is ideal as a young single mom (also see last year’s “Wild”), and proves to be vital in re-calibrating her son’s moral compass when he loses his way. Don’t miss this one–it’s a riveting, thought-provoking picture.