"Don’t get emotional about real estate." That bit of wisdom — among the mantras shared by a predatory broker named Rick Carver — is both upheld and defied by "99 Homes," Ramin Bahrani’s stunningly effective melodrama of flipped houses and mortgaged souls. While the film hardly endorses Rick’s coldblooded, dog-eat-dog view of the world, it is too clear-eyed to oppose his ruthlessness with soft, easy appeals to sentiment. The foreclosed properties Rick acquires and resells may be repositories of hopes, dreams and family memories, but they’re also economic units, "boxes" to be emptied out, refilled and written down on a balance sheet. That’s a fact of life, and also a tragic contradiction.
Dennis Nash learns this lesson the hard way. A skilled construction worker idled by a sour economy — "99 Homes" seems to take place around 2010, in the recessionary aftermath of the financial crisis — Dennis (Andrew Garfield) is unable to keep up with his mortgage payments and so loses the modest house where he lives with his mother, Lynn (Laura Dern), and his young son, Connor (Noah Lomax). At the stroke of a pen, their world has come undone, and Bahrani captures the scene of his dispossession with almost unbearable precision, plunging the viewer into a storm of agonized feeling as Dennis struggles with rage, grief and shame at having been pulled, in front of his neighbors, into the ranks of society’s losers.
In contrast, Rick (played with tiger-shark ferocity by Michael Shannon), could conduct a self-help seminar on how to think, act and dress like a winner. With an e-cigarette clenched between his teeth, a pistol strapped to his ankle and a cellphone glued to his ear, Rick may be heartless, but he certainly isn’t dumb. His assessment of the brutalities of the housing market in Central Florida — and of the Darwinian logic that underlies them — is hard to dispute. The bubble has burst, and as homeowners like Dennis find themselves underwater, trapped in treacherous and complicated loans, Rick is on hand to clean up the mess, or at least to profit from it. Compassion is for suckers, and one man’s misery is another’s opportunity.
He shows up on eviction day, backed up by sheriff’s deputies and bank documents, to tell families that they are now trespassing on property they thought was theirs. The furniture goes out on the sidewalk and the residents enter a spiral of downward mobility.
Dennis, Connor and Lynn wind up sharing a room in a motel overflowing with families in similar circumstances. Maybe the game is rigged, or maybe the laws of nature just work that way. It hardly matters to Rick — or to Dennis, whose passage from Rick’s victim to his protege forms the main axis of the film’s narrative.
Bahrani is especially interested in how the material circumstances of his characters affect their moral decisions. The need for money, and for the security, dignity and status it brings, can force terrible choices on people, but hard times and systemic injustice don’t absolve anyone of ethical responsibility.
Bahrani went a bit astray with "At Any Price," an over-plotted, overacted movie with Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron as a father and son trying to save their family farm. With "99 Homes," which he wrote with Amir Naderi, Bahrani has recovered his balance and sharpened his already formidable knack for concise, emotionally potent storytelling.
True to its neorealist pedigree, the film works partly as a fable, an illustration of how impersonal forces shape individual human destinies. Its palette of feeling includes a bright streak of anger at the way banks, judges and politicians conspire to bully and bamboozle hardworking people like Dennis, and also at the way the pursuit of wealth has eclipsed all other sources of value in our lives.
But if "99 Homes" is a scolding look at a society gone astray, it is also a minor masterpiece of suspense, as tightly wound as "Sicario," Denis Villeneuve’s white-knuckle drug-war thriller, and almost as brutal. Not that there’s much in the way of physical violence: Fists are raised now and then, and weapons are sometimes brandished. But the threat of destruction is pervasive, and everything — the hand-held camerawork, the swift editing, the anxious music by Antony Partos and Matteo Zingales — contributes to an overpowering sense of danger.
Garfield, who was an annoyingly needy Spider-Man, is entirely credible as a man risking his decency to protect himself and his loved ones.
When Dennis starts carrying out evictions for Rick, his natural empathy proves to be an asset. He can give predatory capitalism a friendly human face. Shannon, though, is the film’s center of gravity — its supernova, its black hole, its avatar of cosmic disorder. He is the seductive embodiment of capitalist amorality, a handsome devil offering a small amount of cash for your house keys and slightly better terms for your immortal soul.
Some of the suspense comes from the realization that Bahrani has taken a big risk of his own. As Dennis’ inner conflict becomes unbearable, you may start to become aware of the traps "99 Homes" has set for itself, and to anticipate endings that seem too bleak, too soothing or too sensational to fulfill the film’s promise. But the ending, if I may say so without giving anything away, is just right, absolutely consistent with Bahrani’s acute, impassioned understanding of contemporary American reality. The final shot is at once perfectly clear and perfectly ambiguous, a reminder that some contradictions are more easily understood than resolved.