99 Homes, the fifth film from Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo), made me feel something no movie ever has. Movies have made me angry. Movies have made me cry. I’ve walked out of theaters sometimes feeling inspired and other times defeated. But until watching 99 Homes, no movie had ever made me feel heartbroken.
The old man got to me. In a movie about people losing their homes, it’s easy to grow as numb to the eviction scenes as the evictors do. Most refuse to accept their situation, hurl threats, and yell “How can you sleep at night?!” But not this old man. He just doesn’t quite understand what’s going on and doesn’t put up a fight. He seems to sense that something’s not quite right here but, confused by all the fancy talk and not wanting to cause any trouble, keeps his protests half-hearted as he is forced out of his home.
This poor old guy is one of many people we see forced out by real estate broker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield). Nash wasn’t always this way. When we first meet him, he is an out-of-work construction worker and single father who is behind on his house payments. He soon endures the humiliation of being escorted out of his family home by two sheriff’s deputies and moving his family into a sketchy motel. Needing money and having very few options, Nash goes to work for Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the broker who profited in a big way both from Nash’s eviction as well as from the housing crisis in general.
We’ve all seen this story before. Carver’s business practices are ruthless and unethical and, as a recent victim himself, Nash is at first revolted by him at first. His questions about the legality and ethics of what their doing, though frequent at first, are quickly silenced when he starts to enjoy the steady cash flow. It’s a familiar arc but the back drop of the housing crisis makes it more relatable.
Garfield takes some getting used to as Nash. Best known for playing skinny nerds, his casting as a working man isn’t a perfect fit, even with the beard and tattoos. As his performance matures along with the character, I found the actor’s baby face to be gradually less distracting. The part of Carver, however, fits Shannon like a glove and he is always believable and never dull. The most compelling thing about the Carver character, and Shannon’s performance, is that the script knows when to stop just short of making him a complete monster. Carver does terrible things the way a real person does, not like a villain in a film. In my heart, the “film villain” label is reserved for Nash after what he did to that poor old man…