*This is a reprint of our Sundance 2015 review
Success and honesty have become diametrically opposed forces in 99 Homes, a one-percenter housing thriller that pits a wolf of real estate in the form of an e-cigarette munching Michael Shannon against a hardworking everyman day laborer (Andrew Garfield). Money though is a powerful drug. Opulence, an even purer form of intoxicant. And as Dennis Nash’s (Garfield) desperate catches the sweet whiff of greenback wafting from the depths of Rick Carver’s (Shannon) pockets, he becomes willing to trade in his common man status for the spade suit of an iniquitous property mogul.
When the momentum of wealth thrash against the shoals of morality, values adhere to a sliding scale, a platitude that evidently interests director Ramin Bahrani. From the very first shot of the film, 99 Homes is entranced with the conflicting notion of humanity meshing with personal gain. If Bahrani can be believed, the two cannot peacefully cohabitate.
This idea is raised a number of times (to minutely lessening effect) as Nash transforms from a man who’s been had by the system to one who is now having his way with it. Evolving into a social Darwinian model as financial express train, Nash must mask his true self from those closest to him to detrimental effect.
But let’s rewind. The film begins in court as Nash sees his eviction case spin in and out of the courtroom in less time than it takes to listen to a Katy Perry song. Or a top to fall. Nash’s pleas fall on deaf ears with his mother (Laura Dern) and son (Noah Lomax) forced to bear witness to his legal emasculation. The next day, an emotionless Carver shows up at his doorstep with two policemen in tow, informing them that the bank has repossessed their home and they are now trespassing, all in that eerie calm that only Michael Shannon can summon. Bahrani keeps the camera jammed tight in his player’s faces and refuses to cut, crafting a bruising gut punch of a scene (the best and most visceral of the film) and one that anchors the emotional essence of the piece.
Without getting into Hallmark sentiment, Bahrani cuts to the heart of being a homeowner. Even though Carver’s preaching to “never get attached to real estate” makes sense from a pragmatic point of view, the proof is in the pudding. Losing your house is a heartbreaking experience and one Bahrani mostly gets right. 99 Homes divulges case after case of jettisoned proprietors suffering the equivalent of losing a family member. Bahrani’s tender approach makes for fits of scaring scenework.
Wheeling into the last act, motivations get fuzzy and a touch overwrought. Dern’s final minutes on film are without ample justification as Garfield is forced to make temperament shifts all too quickly. Like the one-percenter he is, Shannon owns the entire way through, weaving a memorable love-to-hate-him antagonist from flax and solidifying 99 Homes as an effort well worth making.