99 Homes (2014) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : Daily horrors of foreclosure and eviction

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Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes” chilled me during its several key scenes which reflect the gloomy reality of many American people after the global economy crisis in 2008. They were evicted from their homes just because they could not make their mortgage payment, and the movie gives us a vivid, devastating presentation of these daily horrors of foreclosure and eviction through its harrowing moral drama.

The opening scene of the film establishes sets its main tone right from the start. Something very bad has just happened in one foreclosed house located in a neighbourhood of Orlando, Florida, but that is only a minor annoyance to Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). Assisted by two policemen and a group of his employees, this heartless real estate agent swiftly completes his court-ordered eviction process as scheduled, and that is all he cares about. The house is just another property for more profit, and there will certainly be more houses to be foreclosed by his realty agency.

One of such houses belongs to a young construction worker named Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) and his dear family, and time is running out for them unfortunately. He has just lost his job, and that makes it all the more difficult for him and his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) to make their mortgage payment before it is too late. Although she works as a hairdresser at their home for additional income, that is not enough at all, and her son remains unemployed as trying to find any possible way to avoid their imminent eviction. When his petition is quickly dismissed at the local court, we cannot help but notice many other people waiting for their turns behind him. They are as desperate as him, and most of them will probably not get any good help either.

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Dennis and his mother can only hope that there will be a way out for them and Dennis’s young son Connor (Noah Lomax) in the end, but the circumstance quickly becomes worse than they imagined. Carver appears along with his two policemen on the doorstep during one afternoon, and Dennis and Lynn are at a loss in front of this unstoppable nightmare. They protest and plead, but Carver coldly reminds them that there is nothing they can do about it except leaving the house as ordered, which is legally not theirs anymore.

As Carver’s employees do their work as usual, Dennis and his family pack their luggage and then leave their house. They go to a nearby motel, and the place is already full of other families who tumbled into the same situation just like them. Dennis and Lynn hope that they will soon be able to take care of this difficult situation, but, as told by one of their new neighbors, it looks like they will stay at this place a lot longer than they think.

While keeping looking for any job to support his family, Dennis happens to be noticed by Carver when Dennis has a quarrel with one of Carver’s workers due to a small matter involved with Dennis’s tools, and Carver offers him an opportunity to earn some money. Although Carver is definitely not someone he wants to work for, Dennis takes care of a problematic house whose interior will make you cringe for a good reason, and he is officially employed by Carver besides getting paid as promised.

As working more for his new boss, Dennis gets more money, and he also finds himself being promoted from a mere labor worker to his boss’s assistant. Now he becomes the one who evicts defaulters from their houses instead of Carver, and he naturally feels more guilt and remorse as seeing more of his boss’s cutthroat business tactics which are immoral and unethical to say the least, but he is also tempted by what he will possibly get from his new job. If he just does whatever Carver demands, he may get his family house back someday – or he may buy a bigger and better one if that suits him and his family well.

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Compared to Bahrani’s previous works including “Man Push Cart” (2005) and “Chop Shop” (2007), “99 Homes” feels more direct and urgent in its more conventional narrative, but it is imbued with the considerable amount of realism and intimacy to take us right into the desperate reality of its characters. During one heartbreaking sequence, we see various homeowners who are going to receive their eviction notice from Dennis, and their different reactions to their bad news feel painfully real. One of them is an old man who does not understand his situation well due to his senile mind, and it is sadder to see how helpless he is with no one to help him. In case of one disturbing homeowner, it looks like he may erupt with violence at any moment, and we can see why Carver is always armed at his work.

As he did in “At Any Price” (2012), Bahrani cast several recognizable professional performers for his film. Convincingly immersing himself into the mundane background, Andrew Garfield conveys well the growing conflict inside his character, and Laura Dern and Noah Lomax are also believable in their scenes with Garfield. Michael Shannon, who can immediately grab our attention with his distinctive intense presence, is darkly compelling as a cynical, ruthless business man who has no qualms about manipulating the flawed system for his own benefit and ignoring the human consequences from that. For him, everything is justified in the name of survival, and he is willing to do anything to take the first place and get the money before somebody else does (“America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners.”).

“99 Homes” is another powerful film from Ramin Bahrani which shows more of his versatile talent. He wants to grip us and then shake us hard with social messages in this time, and he did the job well while never letting his story too blatant or preachy. Even when the movie is shifted to a more agitated mode later in the story, it does not lose its control under his deft direction, and then it strikes us hard with its emotionally devastating moments. At one point, Carver tells to Dennis, “Only one in a hundred’s gonna get on that ark, son. Every other pour soul’s gonna drown.” They say people can do anything for survival, but then there is always the price for that.

Sidenote: The movie is dedicated to late Roger Ebert, who steadily supported Bahrani’s works with admiration and enthusiasm during his later years. I am sure that the movie is one of the best films of this year which would excite my mentor and friend. Wish you were here, Roger.

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