In his previous film “At Any Price,” writer-director Ramin Bahrani dealt in overwrought style with the struggle of family farmers to survive financially and pass their land on to the next generation (whether their sons wanted it or not). Now he and his new writing partner Amir Naderi turn to the home foreclosure crisis that plagued the country after the economic collapse of 2008, and he treats the suburban disaster with the same sort of melodramatic emphasis he brought to the rural one. “99 Homes” is an impassioned critique of an economic system that ruined many people’s realization of the American Dream. But dramatically it’s a deck as stacked as the one that unscrupulous bankers and realtors dealt to the borrowers who lost everything.
The central character—and obvious audience surrogate, in emotional terms—is Dennis Nash (a scruffy, stubbled Andrew Garfield, in a role that a few years back probably would have gone to Jim Sturgess), a regular Joe construction worker who’s been scrambling for jobs since the crash. Now, in 2010, the family home in Orlando he shares with his hairdresser mom Lynn (Laura Dern, doing what has become a familiar harried routine) and his son Connor (cute, freckle-faced Noah Lomax) is about to be seized by the bank, since he’s fallen three payments behind on his mortgage. Nash hopes to forestall the process, but sleazy realtor Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), representing the bank, turns up with the sheriff’s deputies to evict the happy family, giving them only a couple of minutes to collect whatever they can carry and depositing the rest of their belongings on the curb. Soon the three are ensconced in a small room at a dreary motel that caters to evictees.
But Carver, a shark-like predator, sees potential in Nash, taking him on as part of his crew and gradually mentoring him in the business of tossing people into the street, amassing properties for resale and bilking the government in the process. Shannon embodies him perfectly, drawing on an e-cigarette while making certain his pistol is in his ankle holster, staring down anybody he’s talking to and cynically dismissing the slightest feeling of human sympathy, even when dealing with the mess left by a homeowner who commits suicide in front of his family rather than surrender their house. And Shannon relishes a monologue about his motives that the script hands him about halfway into the picture, a speech that might be a little too stagey and Mamet-like, but does position Carver as a seductive small-time Gordon Gekko.
Dennis is torn about going over to the dark side, of course, but the money is better than he’s ever hoped for, and he reaches a deal with Carver to get the family homestead back. Unfortunately, the terms of the arrangement require him to continue to evict people just as he was tossed out (or persuade them to accept a small buyout to vacate the premises). So we’re treated to a manipulative parade of poor souls being thrown into the street, each more pathetic than the last—uncomprehending victims of a cruel and heartless bevy of corrupt financiers and government types. Of course, there’s barely any mention of how some folks thoughtlessly overextended themselves and took out loans that were disastrous miscalculations; all the wrongdoing is on one side.
Nash’s crisis of conscience culminates when his mom and son discover his new source of income and react in horror (very high-minded of Lynn, who seems utterly dependent on Dennis) and in order to secure a lucrative foreclosure contract for Carver Realty he has to insert a forged document into the incomplete file of Frank Greene (Tim Guinee), an acquaintance who grabs a gun to defend his home when Carver and his minions show up. Dennis intervenes to prevent a tragedy, in the process putting Carver in the sights of government investigators. In short, it’s a fantasy, but one that will play into the emotions viewers will undoubtedly feel about punishing the scumbags who’ve mostly gotten off scot-free after nearly causing the economy to implode. (It’s also a conclusion that says nothing about the impact the decision will have on Nash’s own family.)
“99 Homes” is too often maudlin and sappy—most of the cast, starting with Garfield and Dern but working down through Guinee and most of the supporting victims, overdo the weepy, frantic wailing, and even little Lomax pouts overmuch, while the concluding shot of Greene’s doe-eyed son regarding Nash through a car window as Carver squirms under the eyes of federal investigators borders on the risible. The pulsating score by Anthony Partos and Matteo Zingales is also excessively loud and insistent throughout, though otherwise the craft contributions (Bobby Bukowski’s naturalistic lensing, Alex DiGerlando’s realistic production design, Monique Champagne’s set decoration, Bahrani’s editing) are more than adequate.
But the saving grace of Bahrani’s simplistic screed against economic injustice is Shannon’s icy stare and waspish delivery, which cut through the general air of mawkishness like a sharp knife through melting butter. As often happens in such tales of innocence destroyed, Mephistopheles is much more engaging than Faust, and one wishes there were more of him here.