-from contributing editor, Andy Ray
Florida. Arizona. Nevada. These were the states in which homes were most overvalued during the early millennium during the deregulation the mortgage industry. Consequently, when the housing bubble collapsed in 2008, these were the states hardest hit. A story about one man’s struggle with the housing market catastrophe is the subject of Ramin Bahrani’s new film, 99 Homes. It is at once sad and somewhat terrifying to watch.
Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, an Orlando homebuilder, HVAC repairman, and all-around Mr. Fix-It, who loses his job during the disintegration of the housing market. Unable to make payments on his modest home, he, his mother, and his son are evicted by two sheriffs and real estate mogul Rick Carver, played by Michael Shannon. They move into a motel full of other families in the same dire situation – some of whom have lived there as long as two years. Nash shows up at Carver’s office one morning requesting his men return the building tools they stole from him during the eviction. Carver admires the young man’s acumen. Then, in an ironic plot-twist only found in the movies, he hires Nash – the man he had just evicted the day before.
At first, Nash is hired for his handyman skills – disconnecting & removing air-conditioner condensing units from foreclosed homes, removing kitchen appliances, and so forth. Carver is a dislikeable taskmaster, but it’s good pay for an honest day’s work. Still, Nash doesn’t reveal his new employer to his mother or son, lest they possess moral ambiguity about the situation. But, as luck would have it, soon the quick-learning and affable Nash is performing as many evictions as Carver himself. And his pay increases.
While the ruthless Carver shows no outward sympathy for the evictees, Nash has a heart, and his more compassionate style plays well with those forced from their homes. Some of these evictions are downright depressing, albeit very realistic. We cannot help but put ourselves in the shoes of the homeowners forced to leave their dwellings. It’s not easy to watch, but evictions are the inevitable conclusion of overvalued real estate.
In another incongruous plot-twist, Nash returns most of his early paychecks to his boss, requesting that he be allowed to buy back his old bungalow. When he sells the small house and buys a mansion, his family balks. Nash has now reached the end of his rope. His mother and the boy move to her sister’s home in Tampa, while Nash is left to contemplate the deterioration of his life. Is the money worth the ethical atrocity of his work? Can he continue to evict homeowners who miss so few as two mortgage payments through no fault of their own – even though the evictions are perfectly legal?
These are the dilemmas of 99 Homes, and Andrew Garfield gives the best performance of his young career as the troubled Dennis Nash. Nash is a simple, decent man who works hard, and is completely devoted to his family. We all know Dennis Nash. We all like him. He is everyman. And Michael Shannon’s Rick Carver is the jerk we don’t want to know. His role is that of Michael Douglas in Wall Street. We can practically hear Carver giving the “Greed is good” speech from that film. In 99 Homes, the most remembered speech will be Carver’s articulation that the United States helps those who are successful, as opposed to those who are not – exactly the opposite definition of a socialist democracy, but it certainly makes us wonder about our own country.
Garfield and Shannon are excellent, and I hope academy voters don’t forget them come Oscar time. My only complaint is that the ending is ambiguous. I can’t tell you more without spoiling it, but if you struggle with it, please comment and we can discuss it. Now that I’ve contemplated the ending, I have a good idea what Bahrani was trying to convey, but the closure comes as quickly as in a David Mamet film. Don’t expect a denouement. There isn’t one.
And throughout, I was reminded of Michael Moore’s first film, Roger And Me, in which he shows a Flint, Michigan sheriff evicting a former General Motors employee and his family on Christmas Eve, as GM CEO Roger Smith babbles on about how Christmas is the happiest time of year. Unlike 99 Homes, that was a real eviction captured on film for posterity. Therefore, it hits even harder than the scripted evictions of 99 Homes.
Still, 99 Homes is worth seeing. It’s one of the best films so far this fall.
This Andy Ray review also appears on website TheFilmYap.com.