In crafting the story for 99 Homes, writer/director Ramin Bahrani certainly found himself with some true-life subject matter ripe with sharp, complex and emotional drama. Evicting a family from their home surely requires any non-heartless individual to deal with a lot of personal denial and inner-justification, and that’s a tremendous launching point for really any kind of narrative. Adding the twist of transforming the evictee into the evictor, and strongly supported by two astounding performances from Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon, Bahrani does an excellent job of taking the conflict and running with it – though it’s really simple issues in choices and approach that prevent 99 Homes from being great and instead settle for being good.
Garfield leads the story as Dennis Nash – a craftsman and single father living with his son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern) in a small Orlando house whose world take a sharp downward turn when the bank forecloses on his house. The stone-faced, gun-toting, jaded man executing the eviction is Shannon’s Rick Carver – who wants nothing more than for every family to be calm, courteous, and quick as they’re shoved out the door of their homes and literally forced to the curb.
As Nash moves his family into a nearby, low-rent hotel, he struggles to find work, as all of the crews he’s worked with are caught in a building drought. It’s this that eventually leads our protagonist and antagonist back on the same path. After Nash goes to Carver’s offices to confront one of the workers about stealing tools, he winds up working for the e-cigarette smoking stoic, learning the back end of the reality game. At first it’s just cash-for-keys offers (proposing payouts for renters to move), and stripping houses of air conditioners and pool pumps for government reimbursement – and he starts making decent money so that he can try and buy his home back. But before long, Nash winds up on the opposite side of evictions, hiding his newfound professional life from his family.
With many layers of morality and ethics to dissect, 99 Homes offers a wonderful opportunity for two gifted actors, and both Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon prove more than worthy of the task – and truly make the movie worth watching. The lead role is arguably Garfield’s most mature to date, and while filmmakers have spent years working to convince us that the actor can still be in high school or college, he seamlessly slips into the adult Dennis Nash role, and puts together an impressive and empathetic performance. It’s the classic set-up of the good man being seduced by the devil and led down a darker path, and while that’s certainly a challenging arc and transformation, Garfield fully captures it.
Of course, part of what makes Dennis Nash an empathetic character is that you really do understand how he can fall under Rick Carver’s allure. Michael Shannon is never not some level of intimidating in his performances, but in 99 Homes he balances it with an attention-grabbing and magnetic arrogance. Carver is a man who believes that America is a nation built and rigged for and by the winners, and Shannon disturbingly sells it in a way that makes a part of you want to buy it (even while a stronger part repeatedly and constantly acknowledges that he is a complete asshole).
Clearly 99 Homes has some phenomenal elements working in its favor, but it’s the smaller elements – like sloppy storytelling and confusing character decisions – that undercut some of the more otherwise impressive aspects of the film. It’s actually off-putting how quickly Nash goes from being evicted by Carver to working for him (without any kind of real debate on the matter, internal or otherwise); guns couldn’t be waved in front of the audience’s face in a more foreshadow-y way; and certain key decisions that our lead character makes late in the story really wind up looking completely nonsensical when perceived with even limited hindsight. I also have to admit that it doesn’t really sit well with me that the title of the movie isn’t actually a reference to anything within it.
The fall season always promises a wide variety of character-based dramas featuring heavy socio-political themes, and while Ramin Bahrain’s 99 Homes is a strong entry, it’s weak points leave it short of exceptional. Given that it features two fantastic actors giving it their all at the top of their game, however, it’s certainly worth a look.