Starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon. Rated 14A.
Enter Hollywood’s new villain: the real-estate broker.
In 99 Homes, Michael Shannon’s Rick Carver feeds off the victims of the subprime mortgage fiasco, evicting them on behalf of the bank and kicking them to the curb with two minutes to gather their belongings. In the opening scene, he’s already negotiating his next deal by cellphone while medics wheel out a poor ex-homeowner who’s just blown his brains out. His face is like a clenched fist, and there’s something supernaturally sinister about his blue-glowing e-cigarette. And when Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash strikes a deal with him to try to win back his home, the scene is nothing less than Faustian.
Director Ramin Bahrani does some serious shit-disturbing with his latest socio-thriller, and Shannon’s complex portrayal of the bad guy is a huge part of his success. It helps that the story is set in 2010 Orlando, Florida, a land of lost dreams where pink plaster mansions with outdoor pools sit eerily vacated. Garfield, too, does a quietly tormented job as a single dad/tradesman who’s on the losing end of the recession. When he has to hand over his humble bungalow to Carver, he moves into a seedy motel with his hairdresser mom (a wonderfully world-weary Laura Dern) and kid. “Two weeks,” he says, and another downtrodden family informs him that’s what they said two years ago. So when Carver offers to hire Nash to evict others in foreclosure—not to mention recruiting him into various other scams along the way—he makes that deal with the devil without telling his family.
Bahrani, who with writers Amir Naderi and Bahareh Azimi researched the script in painstaking detail, shoots the scenes of families being evicted with unbearably realistic tension. Think neighbours watching from across the street, sheriffs guarding the doors, and children sobbing. It’s a scene literally millions of Americans lived through after the recession.
Bahrani shows the human pain and moral dilemmas behind the stats in riveting ways. Still, he can’t quite drive the promise of the story to an ending as complex as the film’s first half. It’s not like he can look around to research a resolution: rest assured, there are still mansions sitting empty in Florida, families still calling double motel rooms home, and people who sold their souls whom the courts have yet to track down.