Home ownership is an American right of passage. For generations, it’s been a barometer for success in life. After the economic crash of 2008, though, that part of the American dream was ripped away from millions of Americans. Set in 2010, Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes is a devastating look at the foreclosure crisis that swept through America after the 2008 crash, and how opportunists have found new ways to ensure that those with power and wealth amass more power and wealth.
For Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), work in home construction has dried up, and he’s at the point where his bank is foreclosing on his house in conjunction with local real estate mogul Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), who’s quickly snatched up the property. After being evicted by force alongside his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and his son Connor (Noah Lomax), Dennis goes to confront Carver. Instead, he ends up making a deal with Carver to repair some of the foreclosed homes and perform other tasks at his request. With the intent of getting back his house, Dennis finds himself becoming Carver’s protégé.
From its opening frame, 99 Homes is filled with scenes of people losing their homes. Bahrani wisely refuses to embellish these scenes, too. There’s no dramatic music or crazy camerawork. Just scene after scene of people being pressured into accepting lowball offers to leave their homes early, or being forcefully evicted by police. The film’s opening scene finds Carver looking in a bathroom where the owner has just committed suicide. It quickly sells Carver’s cold nature, but it also shows how home ownership is tied into an ability to provide for one’s family.
It’s Dennis’ foreclosure that is actually fully shown first, though, and it’s a devastating scene. Dennis and Lynn plead with a pair of officers and Carver. They argue that they have 30 days to appeal a judge’s ruling. They beg for one day to collect their belongings. The response they receive from one of the officers: “You’re now trespassing.” They’ve been deemed criminals in a space that was theirs one moment earlier. Dennis and Lynn are given two whole minutes to gather as many belongings as they can, and they’re told that it’s a “courtesy.” Anything that’s left will be thrown on the front lawn.
Bahrani’s work here picks up on themes he’s shown in previous films like At Any Price, where working-class Americans are abused by people and larger institutions with more power. The film also shows how the success of people like Carver derives from running many other people through the wringer. With scene after scene of people trying to comprehend their situations, 99 Homes shows the precarious nature of their situations.
In order to give audiences an outlet for their anger, Carver is painted in a slightly exaggerated form, but Shannon fits into the role perfectly. There’s a conviction in his performance that sells his belief that everyone else is to blame for the situation he’s helped foster. “There’s no room for emotion in real estate,” he says with an ease that’s easy to come across when you’re not in a position to lose your home. He also notes that America was built to bail out winners, a statement that’s as true as it is unfortunate.
It’s Dennis, though, who serves as the core of the film, and Garfield does wonders with the role. He disappears into Dennis, and every move Dennis makes comes across as completely believable, from his rage as he attempts to keep a roof over his son’s head to his increasing comfort in practicing Carver’s methods. Carver may be over-the-top, but Dennis is grounded in reality, and capably stands in for millions of Americans who have lost their own homes.
With the way Bahrani makes this film unrelenting, it’s disappointing that he wraps the film with a melodramatic scene that clashes with the rest of the film. It attempts to end the film on a note that’s not in keeping with what’s come before. The ending doesn’t ruin the film, thankfully, but it dings what is otherwise a remarkably strong and unflinching film. 99 Homes shows how easy it is to compromise one’s morals under the belief of doing something good, and Bahrani’s story should make audiences question whether or not they’d follow Dennis’ actions.