The housing crisis that dovetailed with the 2008 financial meltdown was a disaster that hampered and destroyed many, many lives, and as is often the case with major, world-shaking disasters, it now has its very own disaster movie. And while the fallout from these economic calamities has cropped up in several movies already (Up in the Air being one of the earliest instances), 99 Homes is the first to specifically tackle the subprime mortgage crisis head-on. The film unsparingly examines the desperation, devastation and ruthless opportunism that ran rampant in the wake of that catastrophe, as financially crippled people were ejected from their homes while real-estate wheelers-and-dealers unscrupulously cleaned up. 99 Homes thrusts the audience right into the thick of this very ugly situation, taking great pains to mine the material for everything it’s worth. This is a movie with Something To Say, and it intends to say that thing as forcefully and unambiguously as it possibly can.
Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield with a drawl that peters out after about a half-hour) is an Orlando-based construction grunt and single father fighting a losing battle to save his childhood home from foreclosure. Work is rapidly drying up and Nash can no longer pay his bills, and the extra income brought in by his hairdresser mother (Laura Dern), also his roommate, isn’t nearly enough to make ends meet. While attempting to think up some sort of Hail Mary play to save his home, he receives an unceremonious visit from Richard Carver (Michael Shannon, putting his knack for outsized villainy to good use), a soul-deprived real-estate slickster, brandishing an eviction notice, a pair of police officers and a callous mandate that Nash and his family vacate the premises within two minutes. Defeated, Nash packs up however much of his family’s belongings that will fit into the back of his pickup truck and takes his mother and son to live in a seedy motel while he struggles to find someone, anyone, willing to pay him for his fix-it skills.
Nash quickly learns that his tools were stolen by some of Carver’s goons during the eviction, and arrives at the man’s workplace to reclaim them. After a scuffle, Carver gets word that a home he’s trying to salvage has a nasty sewage problem and tells Nash that if he helps out, there might be a couple of bucks in it for him. Nash winds up being the only worker willing to wade into the putrid ocean of human waste to get the job done, impressing Carver enough for him to make Nash his primary construction monkey. Their working relationship goes swimmingly enough that Nash soon advances into something of an apprentice of Carver’s, with the master tasking his charge with such crooked errands as stealing air conditioners from foreclosed homes so that Carver can make even more money for their replacement and pushing a shady “Cash For Keys” program on floundering homeowners. Nash does so well that he ultimately graduates to an eviction-serving hitman himself, pocketing substantial checks for the soul-killing job of tossing poor schleps out on the street. It’s a tough gig, but the money’s good.
Unsavory realty practices don’t immediately seem like much in the way of cinematic fodder, but 99 Homes does a fair job of fashioning a thriller out of this subject matter. The ceaseless, nerve-jangling score helps quite a bit in this area, cultivating an uneasy tenseness from the proceedings. The film also places a fair amount of pressure on the audience’s basic human empathy. When Nash has to politely but sternly move people out of their homes and onto the sidewalk, it’s difficult to watch. In the most heartbreaking instance, he forces a confused elderly man off of his premises and quickly learns that the man has no family or anyplace else to go. The film knows precisely where to hit you to achieve the maximum emotional impact.
But that calculated method of manipulation is also emblematic of where 99 Homes falters. This is a film that has no use at all for subtlety. It plays its emotional hand and makes its moral points broadly and at top volume. Carver isn’t merely a shifty businessman, he’s the devil himself. Shannon had more nuance to play with as General Zod in Man of Steel. Nash’s seduction into the dark side and subsequent crisis of conscience are also played without much complication or dimension. Early on in his partnership, Nash encounters another struggling father who’s on an eviction collision course with Carver and develops a particular sympathetic bond with the man, so it’s no big surprise when all of Carver’s dealings wind up hinging on the undoing of this same man’s efforts to save his home. It’s even less of a surprise when the outcome of that undoing transpires in the most dramatic and apocalyptic means possible. 99 Homes isn’t interested in doing or saying anything that isn’t italicized, bold-faced and underlined.
In spite of the totality of his character’s evilness, Shannon is the best thing about the film. He makes Carver, with his blithe lack of humanity and his constant e-cig, into an enjoyable heel, a source of entertainment and a respite from all the sermonizing and calibrated displays of misery. Garfield is less impressive, as he’s stuck with a character as one-note as Shannon’s (the decent guy struggling to do the right thing), but without the traits to make Nash seem like anything more than a conflicted drip. 99 Homes also struggles with several lapses in logic, such as the fact that the family’s presence at the motel becomes a source of danger, yet Nash, even after collecting some large paydays, never thinks to move his family to a safer temporary location while he works on getting their house back. Moreover, Nash’s decision to keep his alliance with Carver hidden from his mother and son only raises questions, like don’t they wonder why his work attire has changed from scruffy construction-site clothing to crisp business shirts and slacks? The secret only exists so Dern and the kid can have purely outraged reactions to the news when Nash springs a mansion on them, rather than more honest and complicated ones.
99 Homes has its heart in the right place. It wants to shine a spotlight on a horrible era in our recent history and illustrate how decent people suffered while bad men rode their misfortunes all the way to the bank. This is a noble pursuit, but it’s a shame that the film treats such a thorny issue in the manner of an Afterschool Special, where everything is surface-level and easily digestible. 99 Homes has problems, and a lack of subtlety is one.
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