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99 Homes

99 HOMES

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ramin Bahrani

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Noah Lomax, Tim Guinee

MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references, and a brief violent image)

Running Time: 1:52

Release Date: 9/25/15 (limited); 10/2/15 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 1, 2015

If presented with the Bible passage asking what it would profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) is the kind of man who would answer, "Well, the profit is that I gain the world." It's probably a good deal on his end, too. If he even possesses a soul, it hasn't been much use to him.

Rick is a predatory realtor who has made out like a bandit by taking advantage of bank foreclosures in the aftermath of the most recent financial crisis. The opening scene of 99 Homes watches in a one-take as he makes his way through the house of a recently evicted family, talks up the Sheriff's deputies, and tries to rush through all the red tape, because he has another eviction to oversee. There's usually not this much red tape in these proceedings, but upon Rick and the deputies' arrival, the patriarch of the family has committed suicide.

Despite his pronouncements that he knew the man and his family and that it's all terrible, we see him and hear the hollow tenor of his voice. This is an inconvenience and nothing more.

Fresh blood is dripping from the bathroom wall, and we know that Rick is probably wondering if his clean-up guys will be able to get into that bathroom before the blood settles and leaves a stain. There's likely a math equation going through his head involving the time it will take to clean up the mess, if it would be cheaper to just fix up the wall and the tiles and whatever else might be stained with blood, how much the house might have depreciated in value if someone finds out what happened, and what this means to his turnaround time.

See, Rick doesn't just evict these people from their homes on behalf of the bank. He also buys up these houses from the banks and sells them at a profit. He's created his own little empire on the misery of others, and he's doing quite well for himself. He has one house for his wife and three daughters, and he keeps another for his mistress and the parties he throws.

None of the actions that we've covered so far are illegal, either. Rick is simply an opportunist, and this booming opportunity has been handed to him by the banks through adjustable-rate mortgages, the federal government through lax regulations, and the needs (taking a reverse mortgage to cover hospital bills) and wants (adding an unnecessary but stylish patio to a house) of ordinary people.

That's Rick's defense when he's presented with his behavior, although it's more of a pep talk, really. The man who presents the case against him and receives that pep talk is Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a working-class single father who, with his son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern), is evicted from his home. Rick is there for the eviction, obviously, and the eviction goes forward no matter what Dennis has to say—work has dried up, the judge said they had some time, a lawyer will be calling shortly. Rick and the deputies give the family a few minutes to gather their most important possessions, and then Rick's guys go through the house and dump everything on the front lawn.

The film, co-written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, is devastating in this sequence. We already know Rick, having seen the way he maneuvered through the opening scene, will have no sympathy for Dennis and his family, and we just watch as they beg and plead and become enraged and eventually resolve themselves to the fact that this is actually happening. There's nothing to be done about it.

Bahrani offers a few montages of similar scenes, focusing on the faces of people who learn that they will have go through the same ordeal. The man doing the evicting in these glimpses, though, is Dennis, who takes a job with Rick in order to try to get his house back (Garfield, whose performance is solid throughout, is especially strong in these scenes, with cracks of empathy showing in his attempts to maintain a veneer of cold-hearted professionalism).

That makes the film a pretty straightforward morality tale about a man, who actually does have a soul, weighing the price of taking advantage of people, who are just like him, against the need to provide for his family, who are living in a hotel with a group of other people who have been evicted from their own homes. Rick's business model does have some flat-out illegal elements, which become important to resolving matters near the end of the film, but it's ironic how those illegal activities do far less harm to ordinary people—even providing work for some of Dennis' friends—than the legal ones. Because what Rick and Dennis do is legal for the most part, the conflict here really is one of morality and conscience.

That keeps us involved, even as the screenplay (co-written by Amir Naderi) digs deep into Rick's shenanigans, causing more confusion than clarity. We do get the basics, though, and besides, this story is more about the way Dennis falls under Rick's spell and the promise of making more money on one real estate deal than he has ever made in his entire life. Rick, for his part, might be too much of a monster of unfettered capitalism for there to be much nuance here (He'd be twirling his mustache if he had one), but Shannon takes such devilish delight in the role that we're not thinking of that in the moment.

99 Homes is a broad take on a specific kind of soulless opportunism. The film's message is urgent, and its moral stance is adamant.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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