99 Homes is a melodrama of the topical kind. A non-union construction worker (Andrew Garfield) can’t keep up the mortgage payments on the home where he, his mother (Laura Dern), and his young son (Noah Lomax) live, so they are evicted. Forced out with extreme prejudice, it seems to us, because the real estate agent doing the evicting on behalf of the bank (Michael Shannon) performs his task with such vicious eagerness. It then happens that the tossed-off man, Dennis Nash, comes to work for Rick Carver the real estate man, and gradually takes to his new job, setting up a moral quandary. What will happen when Dennis, a thoughtful family type with a tender nature, is asked to do something he considers immoral?
Director Ramin Bahrani, a North Carolina native who wrote the screenplay with Bahareh Azimi and Amir Naderi, has a flair for social commentaries, as in his Midwestern family farm saga At Any Price, his cross-cultural character study Goodbye Solo, and Man Push Cart, the tale of a Pakistani immigrant selling coffee on the streets of Manhattan. In common with those postcards from Tough Luck, USA, 99 Homes fleshes out Dennis Nash’s dilemma with precisely drawn scenes and ironic details all too familiar to those who navigated the Great Recession only to capsize in the new Gilded Age.
The reason Dennis can’t make it is because the builders he works for often go out of business and don’t pay the freelance craftspersons for their labor. His mom Lynn brings in some money running a hair salon out of their home, but that’s not enough to keep a roof over their heads. What happens next is something we’ve seen in Michael Moore’s documentary philippic, Capitalism: A Love Story — a man with a piece of paper in his hand arrives one morning accompanied by sheriff’s deputies, and no matter what the distraught family members may say, no matter how much they cry or cuss, in two minutes their belongings go out on the curb while their neighbors stand around gawking. In Dennis’ case, most of his tools get stolen into the bargain. Then it’s off to the seedy motel where all the other locked-out families end up, casualties of the foreclosure wave that is sweeping over Orlando, Florida in 2010.
Rick the foreclosure vulture, a hustler with ambition, has it down to a fine art. He makes it clear, in one of those Michael Shannon speeches that brings the movie to a breathless stop, that he, too, came from a poor family, and he’s figured out that the only way to survive is to think smarter, hit harder, and grab some of that money the government leaves behind when the suckers get forced out. That, and any air conditioners and water pumps that aren’t nailed down. Besides, opines Rick, most of these chumps deserve to lose because they were fools, spending money they didn’t have on swimming pools and add-ons they didn’t need. Dennis’ heart sinks on hearing these words, but he sucks it up and goes to work running his own crew for Rick and ripping off Fannie Mae. The ready cash and throwaway McMansions impress Dennis, but only temporarily. He is not a killer.
Garfield, Dern, and most of all Shannon lift this sad story to heights it probably doesn’t quite merit, but 99 Homes — the title refers to a quota Rick needs to fill in order to become the real estate baron he dreams of being — is no art film. It mostly aspires to let us see what happened in a specific place in a recent time, and to remind us that people like Dennis and Rick exist, and that every day someone has to make a deal with the devil. Dog eat dog. One side or a leg off, I’m getting mine.