MICHAEL SHANNON (FROM the underrated “Take Shelter”) is one of those actors who always seems to pop up in interesting movies. In “99 Homes”, he does not disappoint. The movie could well have been called “99 Lives”. It focuses on the agonizing human side of the 2008 housing crisis when, it seems, half of blue collar America had their lives foreclosed.
The movie begins with a stark image of the lives shattered by the implosion of cheap mortgages: we see the blood-smeared wall of someone who’s just shot himself. And emerging from the scene of this suicide, liken a succubus, is Rick Carver, Shannon’s real estate agent turned gun-toting eviction supremo. Carver is the cold, ruthless amoral face of the bank closures. As he tells his distraught victims, “I’m not evicting you, the bank is”… in other words, don’t blame me! For Carver, a home is no more than real estate… just a concrete box waiting to be flipped for a profit.
One of the concrete boxes he forecloses on (with, of course the full support of the police) is that of Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield who co-produced, emerging out of his Spiderman outfit to give a stunning performance). Nash is a recently unemployed carpenter/plumber/mason and general Jack of all trades. He lives with his young son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern in a thankless role as his distraught conscience) in the home they’ve always lived in. No matter. The clash between Carver and Nash is the existential clash (as Carver sees it) between winners (“America is only for winners” he tells Nash) and losers; between an implacable (and in this case, corrupt) law and a sense of moral decency; between the abstract and bloodless idea of ‘The Bank’ and the tears of ‘real’ people; between real estate and a home.
The human dimension of Writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s well-crafted moral maze comes when, in urgent need of a handyman, Carver turns to Nash. Out of desperation, Nash swallows his revulsion of working with the man who kicked him out of his home and begins to work for him. Carver finds that he’s lucked out: Nash is more than a handy man; he’s an excellent leader. He’s also desperate to get back his home. And, as Carver well knows, a desperate man will do desperate things. Bit by bit, the lure of easy money, much of it made by bending the law, strips away Nash’s conscience and self worth. Profit as always, wins out over the values of human decency and empathy. Justice loses out to the law. The trajectory of the story follows Nash’s moral decline…his drift from proud father and son to a ‘nose’ following the scent of the money.
In the hands of lesser actors, Bahrani’s fable of human frailty could easily have come across as a bit too strident, as there’s no question whose side the director is on. But Garfield’s Nash emerges as a basically decent person (with a wonderfully realized bond with his son), torn apart by circumstances and his own too fallible humanity. The Englishman Garfield inhabits this down and out blue collar American as if it’s his own skin. As he suffers wordlessly, introspectively, his is a master-class of acting with the eyes. He allows us to see beyond them to his conflict and despair and greed and tragic loss that’s tearing him apart.
For Carver however, as the embodiment of the housing crash, of ruthless profiteering, ever on the prowl for fresh victims like some daylight Nosferatu, Shannon offers a portrait of unfeeling sleaze. If Garfield communicates his anguish via the despair in his eyes, Shannon’s sneer shouts his contempt of the losers.
It’s a writer’s movie. Bahrani shares writing credits with fellow writers, Amir Naderi and Bahreh Azimi. Theirs is a screenplay that’s densely, almost theatrically articulate. For the sleazy Carver is, if nothing else, a glib, smooth talking apologist for unrepentant greed. And those writers gave him a magnificent script to bring alive.
It’s a jucily written role in a jucily well directed film.
And finally as an aside, the team that brought this very American tale to the screens are Americans of Saudi, Iranian, Russian, Afghani and English descent. How very American (but don’t tell Trump)