99 HOMES (8/10); Directed by Ramin Bahrani; Written by Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi; Starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon and Laura Dern; Rated R for language including some sexual references, and a brief violent image; Running time 112 minutes; In limited release October 9.
Losing one’s home due to foreclosure is a living nightmare that countless Americans have faced. That reality is brought brutally to life in “99 Homes” and chronicles the fallout and lengths desperate people will go to reclaim some part of their shattered lives.
Dennis Nash’s (Andrew Garfield) house has just been foreclosed on. As he and his mother (Laura Dern) try to find some way to prolong the inevitable, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) and the police knock on his door and drive them from the house they no longer own. Adrift and desperately looking for work, Nash crosses paths with Carver who strangely offers him a job helping him clean out homes that have been foreclosed on. With little choice, Nash agrees, and Carver begins to notice something in the young man that entices him to make an offer Nash can’t refuse – become his protégé in the business and Nash can buy his house back and get rich in the process. Nash reluctantly agrees but learns he’s quite good at what Carver does and soon finds himself on a path that could lead to his devolution into the same monster that ruined his life to begin with. Faced with an impossible dilemma, Nash has to choose between wealth and success or maintaining his humanity.
“99 Homes” premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and while it does have a lot going for it, it still falls prey to the myriad of problems that plagued many films there this year.
The good thing is that both Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon are absolutely fantastic in their roles and play off each other wonderfully. Garfield with his kind-of southern accent constantly puffing on his American Spirit cigarettes could find no greater foil than in Shannon who is suave, heartless and continually drags his e-cig in every scene. Yet as different as the two are, it becomes obvious they are two sides of the same coin.
Many wonder how someone could become so cold and cruel as to get in the business of ruining people’s lives, but Carver quite elegantly explains how that happens – it was either him or everyone else. The idea of self-preservation is hard to deny, and that’s what he uses to lure Nash into his line of business. Thankfully, the film doesn’t try to humanize Carver too much, as he is quickly shown to be a ruthless SOB who uses his excuses to salve his ragged soul.
Nash starts down this path but is always torn between the lure of success and what he knows is right and also what his mother and young son will think of him. Garfield’s continual struggle with this Faustian bargain while Shannon watches over him with a Mephistophelian glee powerfully drives the bulk of the film. Sadly, it just doesn’t quite know how to handle Nash’s trip down the rabbit hole. His actions definitely sear his conscious and begin to turn him into the same monster Carver is, but it stops short of letting him reach that depth. Nash does get a chance to redeem himself, but it’s foreshadowed early on and almost feels contrived in its setup.
The actual foreclosure scenes are gut wrenching. Some react with shock, others bargain, a few are so bewildered they have no idea what’s going on. But the end result is the same – all are left standing in the street while their memories and lives are unceremoniously dumped into what used to be their front yard. The most horrible part is that these scenes are played out daily to people all around us, and if not for movies like this, none of us might give them a second thought.
Unfortunately, “99 Homes” suffers from one of the worst endings of any movie in recent memory with the possible exception of “It Follows.” There is no denouement; instead we get a line of dialogue while Nash glares at Carver. I can appreciate an ending that is left up to the audience a la “Inception”, but when it’s this completely vague it feels like a cheat. We don’t need a paragraph of text to pop up in the credits to explain everything to us, but a trail of breadcrumbs, at the very least, would have been appreciated.
“99 Homes” almost plays out like a realistic horror film, just instead of a maniac with a machete, he carries a notarized letter from the bank. One may not take your actual life, but his actions will devastate it just as easily. Fantastic performances and a gripping storyline are dampered by an uneven non-ending and the film’s reluctance to let Nash truly descend to Carver’s depths. This really isn’t a film everyone will be talking about in the coming months, but it has story and immediacy that’s worth discussing now. What takes place here is a shadow of real life, even if it isn’t our own, and it would behoove us to take note.