Note: This is a reprint of my review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
When the recession hit, the majority of the population really felt the housing and real estate plummet. Many middle class families got stuck with banks who told them to stop paying their mortgages while they adjusted their rates to something more affordable. Suffice to say that they got screwed over big time while the banks got bailed out. Is it fair? Hell no. And director Ramin Bahrani turns this reality into a theatrical thriller with superb performances from Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon.
Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a struggling father and caretaker who fell into hard times after every construction job he takes building homes falls apart because there is no money to do so during the most recent recession. This means that Nash doesn’t get paid if the job doesn’t go through. After trying to adjust his mortgage rate via the bank, they tell him to stop paying his mortgage while they sort all the paperwork out. Essentially, he gets screwed over by the bank and they foreclose on his home.
Enter Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a real estate broker who is involved in evicting people and cheating banks out of their money. While many fall on bard times, Carver is raking in the cash. After evicting Nash, Carver, knowing Nash is desperate for money and not having any luck with jobs, he takes him under his wing in a strange turnaround. Nash struggles with the ethics of what he’s doing but relishes in being able to provide for his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and son Connor (Noah Lomax).
The film opens with a strong scene in which a man has committed suicide and the police are on the swarm, trying to find out what happened from no one other than Michael Shannon’s character. So from the onset, the film is extremely intense, and if you’ve ever known anyone who’s gone through something like a foreclosure or a short sale like I have, the topic at hand will most likely touch you in a very personal way. 99 Homes not only makes a statement about the recession, banks, and the world of real estate (and a very powerful one at that), but also speaks to the fact that desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures, but at what cost?
Ramin Bahrani really knows how to keep the momentum going. The pacing moves at a wonderful pace, not too slow, and not so fast that anyone can’t keep up with some of the technical lingo within the plot. There are moments when I hoped we’d get more of a real conversation between Andrew Garfield and Laura Dern’s characters about what was happening, because he hides it from her for the same reason you hide anything from a parent: You know they’ll be upset. We get some of the major repercussions for that, but nothing really concrete, as it’s more focused on Garfield’s character.
Bahrani commits himself to the story and to painting these characters in gray at every turn. Since Garfield’s character is at the forefront, we really sympathize with him, question some of his actions, but ultimately understand where he’s coming from. He understands himself too, as he’s always questioning himself ethically, and Garfield portrays this in a fantastic emotional portrayal, because this is where his character’s head space is. He isn’t being logical, but his decisions are made in an emotional manner. These decisions are the ones that bring in the most tension-filled scenes and also the most emotionally-triggering ones. Garfield is superb in this and really cements himself as a great actor, no questions asked.
And since Bahrani knows how to get the best out of his characters, this is also one of Michael Shannon’s best performances in recent memory. He’s terrifying, a ruthless businessman who isn’t into emotional attachments at all, and through helping Garfield, he’s really helping himself, though I don’t believe he’s completely without a heart. He too is also fantastic in his role and whenever he and Garfield share a scene together, there’s a palpable chemistry and spark of underlying tension in the air between their characters. Laura Dern does an excellent job as well as Garfield’s mother, though my only complaint, as mentioned before, is that there wasn’t all that much for her to do, her character in an extremely limiting supporting role. However, when there was something for her to do or to express, she was great.
99 Homes is one of those films that is sometimes hard to watch. The topic alone is close to home for many and the idea that this could even happen is hard to wrap your head around. Ramin Bahrani is a gifted director, knowing how to tell his story both technically and emotionally. There are moments where the film could have expanded on personal relationships (i.e. Garfield and Dern’s mother/son dynamic), but this largely plays more of a role in the end and doesn’t affect the film in a necessarily negative way. There’s a lot to like in the film. There’s drama, suspense, great storytelling, powerful performances, and an emotionally riveting tale of consequences, lawlessness, and piggybacking off of the people who are used and abused by the system. Solid and well worth watching.
Sundance Release Date: January 23, 2015, DC Release Date: September 25, 2015 | Director: Ramin Bahrani | Screenwriters: Ramin Bahrani, Amin Naderi | Cast: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Noah Lomax | Genre: Drama, Thriller | MPAA Rating: R for language, including some sexual references, and a brief violent image