Ramin Bahrani’s 2014 film 99 homes is yet another spectacular film to come out involving a plot inspired by the financial crisis of the late 2000s. Instead of focusing on the macro-level of the crisis like Margin Call or The Big Short, 99 Homes is a more personal story favoring Main Street over Wall Street. Hence, the narrative follows the families that lost their homes to bank foreclosures following the collapse of the housing market. A key player in this story is a real estate agent named Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), who knows every angle and never saw a shady deal he didn’t like. Set against him is the protagonist of the story, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), who is one of the “victims” of the foreclosures. But, ultimately this is a film about financial hardship and the lengths that an honest man will go to in order to provide for his family. It is about integrity in the face of hunger and failure, and the opportunism that emerges in the environment surrounding a profoundly rigged game.
99 Homes opens with Nash pleading in court for more time to find a job and pay his mortgage. His objections are dismissed in seconds, and he loses his house the next day at the behest of Rick Carver, who forecloses on him. Nash is a reasonably accomplished construction worker / handyman, but cannot find a long-term job, so he is forced to move his young son and mother into a run-down hotel populated chiefly by other families that have suffered a similar fate. Eventually, Nash’s skillset is desired by Carver, and he begins doing odd jobs for the “bad guy”. The result is a clear conflict of conscience, as Nash has to choose between protecting his own interests at the expense of others and going hungry while living in a hotel. As the relationship between Nash and Carver matures, the real estate mogul’s business practices are shown to be suspect and even criminal, bringing Nash’s inner conflict to its apex.
As mentioned before, these lead actors are fantastic, but the smaller parts are also perfectly portrayed. Garfield cements his prowess as a wonderful actor capable of subtlety, and he shows that his performance in The Social Network was no accident. He is able to imbue Nash with a palpable sadness / embarrassment for his inability to provide for his family, and yet at the same time keep him a respectable and capable man. And, as the choices before him become more difficult, Garfield lets the agony play across his face in numerous tense sequences. His compatriot, Michael Shannon, is at least his equal in the portrayal of Rick Carver. Shannon’s Carver is reasonably slimy but still fully believable and humanized as a character. It is difficult to even cast him as the “villain” of this story, as most of his actions are simply gaming the system in front of him – not at the expense of the people living in the homes that he repossesses, but at the expense of the banks and the government. It is a peculiar character that could have come off as too maniacal and crude, but Shannon keeps Carver reasonably grounded.
As powerful as these two lead performances are, the overall quality of the film is heavily informed by the highly capable character actors in the film, most of whom are in the process of having their houses repossessed. In this way, 99 Homes could be compared tangentially to Spotlight or Up in the Air, in that much of its thematic and emotional weight must be generated by character actors. (In the case of Spotlight, it is the victims of sexual assault, and in the case of Up in the Air, it is the people being fired). Like those films, 99 Homes succeeds by drawing absolutely heart-shattering performances from actors who have less than 30 seconds of screen time, and it contributes to the “every-man” nature of the theme that 99 Homes is furthering. Specifically, a short sequence involving a wheelchair-bound old man is sufficient to draw tears from even the most hard-hearted. It is a wonderful attention to stylistic detail, and if the heavy-hitters of Garfield and Shannon are successful, it is largely due to capitalizing on these less-heralded performances.
Thematically, there is a difficult false dichotomy that 99 Homes has to deal with, but it is directly addressed by Shannon in the film’s most rousing philosophical speech. Essentially, it is a dog-eat-dog world out there, and if you are not willing to “win” the fight, then you are going to be the one getting exploited. Ultimately, this is not true in the strictest sense: even the rampant profit-seeking which led to the financial crisis sought to create “winners” on all sides: homes for the people, money for the banks – but though the intentions may have been good, the execution of the incentives clearly resulted in completely adverse results. 99 Homes identifies these problems, but also fully dramatizes the issue by forcing Carver to devolve into abject criminal activity by the film’s climax. This way, the decision forced upon Nash is as black-and-white as possible, and helps to clarify the issues that would otherwise be more muddy.
Thankfully, 99 Homes has more flavor to it than the standard “big banks are evil / stupid” theme, and it gains most of that thanks to the focus on the human element of these large financial markets. The smaller characters carry significant weight here, and it is impressive. The film ends in an abrupt way, and it is comfortable with allowing the questions it has raised to remain mostly unanswered. It is happy to portray the real human cost of gaming a vast financial system, and encourages the audience to experience these quandaries from multiple vantage points. It is considered approach to a challenging topic, and shows that the director Ramin Bahrani is capable of telling all manner of stories with a keen stylistic eye and considerable intellect.