‘99 Homes’ uses economic housing meltdown to tell thrilling, heavy-handed morality tale

Alex Pelham

When police investigate the suicide of an evicted homeowner in “99 Homes,” director Ramin Bahrani captures the misery of the housing crisis and sets the stage for this tense, well-executed thriller.

Turning a subject as complex and tragic as the housing crisis into an interesting premise is a difficult feat, but Bahrani manages to pull it off. He uses the issue to offer a standard morality tale about greed while putting a human face on both the losers and winners of the “home realty game.” Paired with standout performances by Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield, “99 Homes” offers an uncomfortable exploration of an unjust system.

Construction worker Dennis Nash (Garfield) finds himself in the same boat as a dozen other families when the bank forecloses on his family home. After the eviction forces him, his son and his mother to move into a hotel room, Nash confronts Rick Carver (Shannon), the aggressive realty manager who now owns his former residence. Desperate for money, Nash ends up having to work for Carver. As he climbs the financial ranks of Carver’s seedy, illegal company, Nash begins to question the morality of his actions while struggling to earn back his family’s home.

A long, drawn-out sequence where Carver and a couple of sheriffs kick Nash out of his home is heartbreaking, and the situation gets darker as Nash himself starts evicting people as part of Carver’s organization. Journeying through the specifics of the realty market is a chore at first and watching Carver’s illegal business dealings and its effect on innocent homeowners only becomes more repulsive.

However, Bahrani’s desire to subject the audience to absolute devastation becomes forced. There isn’t  subtlety to his methods of getting an emotional reaction from the audience. In one scene where parents and their toddler with a cast get booted from their home, the misfortune that Bahrani spills on the screen seems a bit exploitive and pandering.

What truly propels the film past being an average social drama are the performances by Garfield and Shannon. Garfield’s transformation from a blue-collar “good-guy” to white-collar evictor stands as the only tactfully written portion of the movie. Shannon, on the other hand, is enjoyably over-the-top as the vulgar, yet whip-smart businessman. Though completely deplorable, his suave demeanor and harsh but thoughtful outlook on life make him a compelling character rather than a stock villain.

The rest of the cast simply can’t keep up with the pair. It’s difficult to picture Laura Dern as a grandmotherly figure, and her sole purpose as Nash’s blatant moral center makes her a bland character. Likewise, Nash’s son (Noah Lomax) is only there to serve as motivation for his struggle. All father-son bonding moments the two share feel forced and cheesy.

Overall, “99 Homes” effectively uses the real-life inspired tragedy of one man’s attempt to win against a corrupt, enticing system. Key performances by the two leads add to an intriguing look at both the hardships people face during economic devastation and the people who exploit it to get ahead.

Director: Ramin Bahrani
Runtime: 112 Minutes
Rating: 7/10 Houses