Great actors are a filmmaker’s best friend. Michael Shannon transforms the otherwise heavy-handed economic morality tale, 99 Homes, into something dynamic and alive. Director Ramin Bahrani often favors preaching over telling a compelling story, but it’s a worthwhile sermon as we continue to extricate ourselves from the Great Recession. Mostly, it’s just a pleasure to watch the force of nature that is Michael Shannon deconstruct the American Dream with terrifying precision.
Back in the day, Rick Carver (Shannon) was a legitimate real estate agent. He enjoyed, “Putting people in homes” and giving families hope for a bright future. The de-regulation and reverse-mortgages of the new millennium, however, transformed him into an evictions enforcer. The propulsive opening sequence finds Carver ruthlessly scheduling his next foreclosure, even as he looks upon the lifeless body of his latest “client,” who chose suicide rather than facing the humiliation. Puffing on his E-vape cigarette and barking orders to flunkies, Carver is the master of all he surveys.
Carver takes a curious interest in a laid-off construction worker named Nash (Andrew Garfield); a man whom he just evicted, along with his mother (Laura Dern) and son (Noah Lomax). Desperate for cash, Nash is willing to swallow his pride and take a position as Carver’s new protégé. He proves a quick study in the real estate game, and the two cook up various schemes to bilk citizens out of their homes and the government out of its money. Soon, Nash has enough money and clout to reclaim his foreclosed house, but how does he explain the sudden good fortune to his moralizing sister and naïve son? Is a dilapidated old house worth losing your soul?
99 Homes might have worked like gangbusters had it lightened its thematic sledgehammer. Instead, its heavy-handed and repetitive approach makes it a mildly-instructive morality tale. Barhani drags Nash from one eviction to the next, repeating the same story beats over and over again. It’s ugly, tragic stuff that borders on exploitation when administered in such heavy doses. The message has already been delivered, and yet the courier keeps ringing the damn doorbell. It makes for a sluggish pace, as you await the return of Michael Shannon to make the story breathe again.
As long as Shannon is on the screen, everything is fine. His intoxicatingly-wicked antagonist delights in pointing out the cliff’s edge as he dances above his fallen comrades. Though the same could be said for most of Shannon’s roles, it’s truly hard to imagine another actor playing Carver with such twisted humanity. He’s one of those villains that so completely overshadows the hero that he puts you in the uncomfortable position of rooting for him.
When Shannon disappears for long stretches, however, Bahrani loses any sense of urgency with his storytelling. He settles for tightening the same screws on Nash, who, quite honestly, isn’t that compelling of a character. Making Andrew Garfield the 30 year-old father of a 10 year-old boy is a needless contrivance by Bahrani and his co-writer, Amir Naderi. This is a movie about power and powerlessness. More specifically, if the powerless are willing to sell their souls in order to gain that power. The age difference between Carver and Nash introduces a father-son dynamic that only distracts from this premise. The only difference between these two men should be that Carver long-ago abandoned the principles that are still guiding Nash. As it stands, Garfield is put in the unenviable position of trying to hang with Shannon, who gets all of the juicy dialogue and dictates most of the action.
Also problematic is the introduction of another foreclosure victim, Frank Greene (Tim Guinee). This unnecessary and melodramatic sub-plot is so obvious that it nearly derails the entire film. Again, earnest as Bahrani’s intentions may be, there is very little genuine drama or tension to be found in a character created for the specific purpose of conveying a message. It’s the utilitarian nature of the script that keeps 99 Homes from truly shining.
Yet, despite the flawed presentation, there is no denying the importance of Bahrani’s message. Few films have taken audiences inside the troubled housing industry that brought about the economic collapse of 2008. It created victims like Nash, and monsters like Carver. More importantly, it forced victims to become monsters in order to survive. That’s the real power in Bahrani’s story, and that’s a story worth telling. Sadly, it feels like he didn’t trust audiences to understand the moral nuances of this complicated new reality. Much like Haggis’ racial polemic, Crash, the overbearing message often suffocates the admirable intentions.
In the end, 99 Homes becomes a protracted exercise in redemption that is, itself, saved by a brilliant performance from Michael Shannon. There will probably be better films about the Great Recession after time and distance have given artists some added perspective. For now, Bahrani has provided the most honest look at not only the losers, but the winners who benefited from their misfortune. Michael Shannon becomes the face of all we find repellant, and yet still admire for having an indomitable will to survive. It’s a shame that 99 Homes never finds a way to make the losing side a bit more interesting.