“99 Homes deals with relevant, dramatic subject matter, but often stumbles around in finding the right approach.”
by Ken Bakely
Any thought of Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes is permeated by Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the chilling real estate agent gone rogue in the wake of the housing crisis. He wears bright sportcoats, speaks sharply and bluntly, and always has a shiny, illuminated e-cigarette at arm’s length. Now, instead of helping people find houses, he forces people out of them. Residing in the loopholes of the law, or directly in violation of it, Carver is basically given free reign to prey upon those locked in legal battles following imminent foreclosures, and with the assistance of a bribed sheriff’s department, evicts the tenants during what they presumed was a grace period which they could have used to file appeals. He makes quite some money off this ruthless cycle, and suburban Orlando is his stomping ground. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a local freelance construction worker, a single dad who lives with his mother (Laura Dern) and his young son (Noah Lomax). They are kicked out of their residence by Carver, and relocate to an extended-stay motor lodge, where many occupants are in a situation similar to theirs. However, Dennis finds himself working for the very man who made him homeless, after desperately job searching, and becoming Carver’s protege of sorts. In the process, he will learn the secrets of this sub-industry, and uncover just how corrupt this empire is.
Wrapping up on a climax which is somehow simultaneously too neat for its own good and raises many more questions than it answers, what we’re left with is a film with a message to deliver and talented, dedicated actors to bring it to life, but an unpolished script which doesn’t succeed in connecting with its audience as well as it could have. 99 Homes deals with relevant, dramatic subject matter, but often stumbles around in finding the right approach. Even some aesthetic choices have trouble paying off, such as Bahrani and cinematographer Bobby Bukowksi’s decision to frame many intense confrontational scenes in distracting, shaky handheld shots, a creative choice which unintentionally defuses the moment, instead bludgeoning the audience with the blindingly obvious visual cue that This Is Very Serious. Misguided moves like these are symbolic of the problems within, in a movie saved by the performances of Garfield, Dern, and Shannon, who keep the story going when the writing itself can’t quite hold on.
99 Homes’ dissection of Carver’s business model, for all intents and purposes based on a true story, is a bit flimsy, but it’s doubtful that very much explanation was needed to begin with. Bahrani is primarily concerned with focusing on the ever-shifting power dynamic between him and Nash, as they go from cold enemies to uneasy forms of trainer and trainee. But the film doesn’t particularly work on the merits of its own story. The screenplay, written by Bahrani and Amir Naderi, spends long stretches of time depicting its characters, especially Carver, to ideological extremes, but often forgets to make them fully human. While down-to-earth conflict is a key element of Nash’s personality, the cartoonish way the movie depicts the sneering Rick Carver, going insofar as to show him shrugging off an ex-client’s suicide in the first scene and sarcastically spouting empathetic-sounding comments to police within earshot of the victim’s family. Shannon’s performance is stormy, captivatingly evil, and efficient, but it’s hard to believe him as a real person, making it Garfield’s character against an only-vaguely personified caricature. Bahrani wants you to despise Carver, but instead you spend a good percentage of the 112 minute runtime thoroughly in disbelief that an otherwise seriously-styled drama about an all-too-timely subject could even momentarily believe that such an overblown creation could be considered fitting.