By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
“99 Homes,” a film with Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield, and Laura Dern. Written and directed by Rahmin Bahrani.
“99 Homes,” set in Florida, is an excellent socio-economic film that could have been a documentary. I’m glad it isn’t. It is a well-acted, powerful drama based on the 2007-9 economic collapse, when banks foreclosed on thousands of homes—resulting in “legal,” yet ruthless, evictions.
It started out as a housing boom. Realtors convinced low-income people and those with bad credit that they could buy a home and have the American Dream. They offered them subprime mortgages, low payments with little or no money down. Innocent victims showed up at real estate offices where they completed eligibility forms. Little did they know that once these forms got into the hands of mortgage brokers, their stated income was fudged to satisfy lenders.
By the end of 2007, the economy tanked and people were not able to make their mortgage payments. The housing market collapsed. Many went to their banks for loans or asked for extensions, but were denied. The banks soon foreclosed on their homes, and homeowners found eviction notices tacked to their front doors.
Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash (a more nuanced character than the one he played in “The Social Network”). Nash builds houses. He’s also a general handyman who knows his way around air-conditioning, electrical, and plumbing systems.
Nash, and Lynn, his mother (a perfect Laura Dern), who works out of the home as a hair-dresser, and his preadolescent son, Connor (a believable Noah Lomas), live in a modest detached home in a Miami suburb. As an independent contractor, he had had lots of work during the housing boom. When it all fell down, he had none. He couldn’t pay his bills, let alone his mortgage.
There’s a harrowing scene of their forced eviction, ordered by the sheriff and overseen by the cut-throat, Machiavellian realtor, Rick Carver (an intense, excellent Michael Shannon). Carver, in an expensive, beige silk suit, shows up with a group of big, mean-looking dudes, some wearing bandanas pirate-style, jeans, and “wife-beater” T-shirts. Nash, Lynn, and Conner load his pickup, leaving the sheriff deputies’ honchos to ransack the house and throw everything on the lawn.
The Nashes end up at a sleaze-bag, noisy motel. Still, Nash is determined to get his house back no matter what. Though the film is about bank foreclosures, director Bahrani manages to build suspense by focusing on Nash, his strategy, and his relationship with Carver.
Carver hires Nash to make repairs on foreclosed homes he will be selling once the bank’s terms are met. He makes a deal with Nash, some of which entails illegally faking records regarding the removal and installation of appliances for which the bank will pay. Nash knows it’s wrong, but Carver sells him on the idea that in a world of dog-eat-dog, it’s best to strive to be a survivor. “Don’t get emotional about houses,” says Carver. “They’re just boxes.”
At this point, like Faust, Nash has sold his soul to the devil, so desperate is he to move out of the motel and reclaim his home. Eventually, his goals are inflated; he dreams of acquiring a mansion and a swimming pool, and other lavish luxuries. It’s sad to see him end up by evicting people with the same ruthlessness as when he was a victim.
Nash’s dilemma comes to a head when Lynn and Connor find out what’s really going on and when he is forced to evict a friend whose son goes to school with Connor. He finds himself at a crossroads and takes the right path, though it costs him dearly.