'99 Homes', A Morality Play Built On Foreclosures And Evictions

'99 Homes', A Morality Play Built On Foreclosures And Evictions

1:33pm Sep 25, 2015

The most powerful morality plays work like drama instead of melodrama, so you're not just on the side of the victim, you also see the world through the eyes of the oppressor. Wall Street did that, although Oliver Stone made the devil-mentor of the wide-eyed protagonist, Gordon Gekko, so charismatic that a generation of moneymen adopted him as a role model.

Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes works on the same principle, with one key difference. The villain is Rick Carver, a predatory Florida realtor played by Michael Shannon, but the guileless apprentice he corrupts begins as one of his victims.

That victim is Dennis Nash, played by Andrew Garfield. Nash is a skillful builder, but the market has fallen out of the construction business and he barely gets work. He takes out a loan he can't repay on the house in which he lives with his mom, played by Laura Dern, and his young son.

Early on, he fights foreclosure before a brusque judge. Then comes a knock at the door: the sheriff and, behind him, Carver. In the scene that follows, a hand-held camera swerves with the characters as the mother cries out in grief and Nash pleads and argues. Bahrani presents this as a primal violation. Owning a home in the U.S. is hugely freighted with issues of self-worth. I found the scene so excruciating I had to get up and walk around the back of the theater.

99 Homes turns on an improbability you just have to go with: Carver takes a shine to Nash, who proves himself by taking charge of the clean-up of a house where the evicted owners deliberately backed up the septic tank. Soon, Carver's giving Nash loads of money to strip foreclosed homes of appliances and, later, carry out evictions. The carrot is that if Nash makes enough, he can buy back his home. The audience is in a tough spot, rooting for Nash to succeed and cringing as he does unto others what was done unto him.

Carver, the film's devil-mentor, is a man who has channeled his demons with startling efficiency. But 99 Homes is sometimes written with a heavy hand, and Garfield — though hardworking — overplays Nash's feelings of guilt. He doesn't want the audience to hate him, even for a moment, so when he evicts people he looks as distraught as they do. Fortunately, Dern makes Nash's mother so decent and unaffected that you understand her son's reluctance to tell her the source of his cash. You know you're damned if you can't tell your mom what you do for a living.

99 Homes builds to a predictable but smashingly effective climax. Bahrani makes you understand how this poisonous financial ecosystem thrives. His early films — among them Man Push Cart and Chop Shop — were lucid studies of people on the outside of society. Here, he shows that in an economic climate this unstable, everyone fancies him- or herself an outsider — liable to be victimized — and can justify any bad deed. Even the evictors fear they're one step away from eviction.

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