After his home is foreclosed on, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) finds himself working for the very same real estate broker who evicted him, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). From there, 99 Homes plays out as it must. While the film’s Mamet-sharp sequences of cause and effect produce a tight plot packed with dramatic irony, writer/director Ramin Bahrani follows Aristotle’s handbook of tragedy so undeviatingly that he risks adding to our desired fear and pity a sense of incredulity.
The film opens with a grisly foreclosure-cum-murder/suicide. As Carver, well-dressed in a Sonny Crockett way, surveys the blood-spattered bathroom, a viewer who has not read anything about the film will wonder if he’s the murderer. The answer is soon revealed to be no; as the film goes on, the answer is readjusted to, well, sort of. He’s uncooperative with the police at the crime scene, but in an assertive and sardonic way that might initially put us on his side—if it weren’t for the disconcerting quickness with which he switches back to talking business on his cell phone. If we’re still not clear on Carver’s profession and the situation that lead to his discovering the murder/suicide, we just have to wait for him to knock on Nash’s door a few scenes later.
The film does not dwell on the backstory of Nash’s financial problems. The tense music of the crime scene follows Nash to his job in construction where his foreman unceremoniously announces that, due to an investor’s default on payment, they’re ceasing work on their current project: “The last two weeks we’ve been working for free.” So, for Nash at least, he’s doubly affected by the housing crisis. His inability to make payments on his own house is due to others’ inability to make payments on theirs. Nash is a single father—the cause of this predicament is even more willfully avoided by the film—who’s also helping to support his mother, Lynn (Laura Dern), who works out of their family home as a stylist. One way or another, he finds himself in a courtroom lobby, waiting to face an unsympathetic judge who is overwhelmed by the huge queue of similar cases and will do nothing to elucidate the timetable of Nash’s upcoming foreclosure. In a scene that anticipates the simplicity of the script’s ultimate moral, Nash’s son Connor (Noah Lomax) is looking at a giant globe in the lobby with a boy who turns out to be a classmate of his, Alex (Alex Aristides). In passing but loaded chatter, one of the boys points to a country that looks like the United States but upside down, “flipped this way,” preparing us for a film where the ideal America is turned on its head by the flipping of houses. As their fathers yank the boys in opposite directions, the dads deal each other a suspicious stranger-danger glare. We don’t have any reason to suspect that this scene is as important as it will end up being; we just get the general vibe that adults are kind of terrible and the world would be a more unified place if we were just friendly with one another like one hundred percent of kids always are.
The scene where Carver and police officers evict Nash and his mother from their home is powerful, painful drama. Carver, wearing a gun on his ankle and flaunting his new Land Rover and puffing a blue-tipped e-cigarette (more on the e-cigarette later), is now firmly established as our villain. Nash and his mother pass in a daze from trying to explain the law’s “mistake,” to angrily ordering them off the property, to finally realizing that they’re trespassers in their own house. As Lynn pleads, “We need a day! We need a day!” and struggles to make the sudden decision of what possessions to take with them, a plant and toaster oven suddenly assuming sad importance, a group of laborers descends on the house, disgorging all of its contents out onto the lawn. Just when it seems that the event couldn’t be any more humiliating, the school bus carrying Connor pulls up. After screaming, “You lied to me!” at his dad, the boy becomes concerned with the NBA2K season he’s playing with a friend and whether or not he’ll be in school tomorrow. Rather than revealing shallowness, these turns towards the insignificant items and daily routines—the toaster oven, a video game—show poignantly how tragedy short-circuits our capacity for rational thought and how the fragile, unfixed idea of home is made manifest in mundanities.
The Nashes find themselves exiled from the middle class to a crummy motel featuring a constant ambient background of loud profanity. When asked by a suspiciously helpful woman how long they’re staying, Nash’s answer is “Just a couple nights.” “Two years ago,” she replies, “that’s what we said.” Wisely, the script realizes it’s in danger of revealing a blind spot to the Nashes’ relative privilege—and responds by revealing it fully, via Nash’s first unlikable moment in the film. To his mother’s observation, “This motel is full of people like us,” he replies, “They’re not like us.” Someone who goes into the film knowing the general plot, or at least understanding that Spiderman and General Zod have to cross paths again, await this seeming impossibility with a kind of sick delight. It turns out that one of Carver’s laborers probably made off with some of Nash’s work tools during the eviction. Nash confronts him about it, Carver intervenes, an emergency call arrives, Carver enlists Nash’s help, and Nash makes the fatal decision to chase the fifty dollars dangled in front of him.
The emergency is a foreclosed house with plumbing sabotaged by its previous occupants, KILL BANKERS written in red on the wall. 99 Homes won’t teach an uninformed viewer anything about the logistics of the housing crisis, but, in a way, this hell house is all you need to know. In Aristotelian terms, this is Nash’s peripeteia, a reversal of fortunes to reverse his previous reversal. After the gumption he shows shoveling shit, Nash is hired by Carver to do some work in his McMansion, where a kitschy sign on the wall reads FAMILY like a slain trophy and his three pink-clad “Princesses” are rewarded for nothing with ice cream and a battalion of easels display maps of foreclosed properties. The film stumbles into the genre of the American financial overreacher—Scarface, Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street, etc.—and, as with those films, I found myself participating with Nash’s flirtation with immorality, a distinctly American part of myself cheering Nash’s mounting success, implicating me as a viewer in the resultant fallout. Garfield’s finest moment in the film is when he “pops his cherry” as the main bank representative at his first foreclosure; he forces himself to look the family in the eye, but his voice trembles over the requisite lines. Shannon has become the go-to actor for truly dangerous characters, from a matricidal stage actor in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done to a dubious prophet in Take Shelter to an unhinged corrupt cop in Premium Rush (and his finest performance of all as an insane sorority leader in this Funny or Die video), and 99 Homes is worth experiencing just for his wounded Mephistopheles moments alone. “I’m not an aristocrat,” he opens up to Nash. “My dad was a roofer. America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out the winners… by rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.”
Nash’s new job leads him to the doors of Frank Green (Tim Guinee), the dad from the turns-out-important courtroom lobby scene of Act I. Green’s judicial actions to keep his home eventually threaten Carver’s race to lock down a deal with a company called Vessick Investments for the sale of one hundred houses (eventually, thousands) in the Orlando area, and Nash is commissioned to deliver a forged document to the bank’s lawyers for use against Green in the hearing. Green’s eviction turns into an armed standoff, and it takes little imagination to see that the murder/suicide that opened the film is in danger of repeating itself. Nash intervenes, and between Green’s gun and the guns of the police cathartically admits his role in the crime. Green drops his gun, surrendering peacefully. As Nash is led past Carver towards his own awaiting squad car back seat, we expect the full brunt of Shannon’s wrath. Instead: “Thank you.” This is a strange moment in the film, as it can be interpreted in two pretty much opposite ways. He might be thanking Nash for taking the rap on the forged document. This doesn’t really make sense, though, in that the document would surely get tied back to Carver in the end—but the scene seems to carry on as if Carver is off the hook. Although abrupt and a little unbelievable, it could also be seen as a moment of redemption for Carver. He’ll get in trouble, but because of Nash’s courage, the whole sordid game is over. Even with this cheerier interpretation, we might be left wondering if it was really worth it. After all, Nash is going to jail, and his family situation is worse then ever. Then, at the window of the squad car, Nash sees Green’s son, Alex. Alex smiles at Nash.
Ah, okay. Got it. The children. Roll credits.
Earlier in the film, at the party celebrating the one hundred houses Carver Realty had secured from Vessick, Nash had toasted, “To dreams.”
“Fuck dreams,” Carver countered. “To one hundred houses.”
Not houses, homes, the title of the film reminds us. And, while ninety-nine isn’t much fewer than one hundred, for one family it’s everything.
But, more importantly, let’s talk about Carver’s e-cigarette. Because 99 Homes is also a scathing commentary on tackiness. With his blue e-cigarette, Carver is like a misguided vision of the future—from the not-so-distant past. In his expensive clothes, he’s like the McMansions he sells, and his e-cigarette is the fake marble or the Tuscan whatever or the pool speakers hidden in fake rocks. Especially aside Nash’s real cigarettes (which Garfield holds like joints for some reason), Carver’s e-cigarette makes him slightly cyborg. You know, Luke… help me get… this vape on.
When asked by a police officer at the beginning of the film for a statement at the crime scene, Carver snaps, “What statement could I make that would encapsulate the tragic absurdity of this fucked up situation?” A different film might have actively pursued the actual impossibility of encapsulating the fucked up situation of the 2008-2011 US housing crisis, but 99 Homes tries its best to supply the viewer with a pretty concise statement: houses are homes, and our power as individuals to choose honesty and kindness does make a difference in the end, even when measured against a rotten economy and a faceless cabal of investors and politicians.
Cross-referencing this message with the morality tale that produced it, however, reveals complications. Namely, at every level of the film’s conscience, it seeks to preserve the possibility of both nuanced and black-and-white viewer interpretations. Nash needs to be the powerless victim of higher economic forces while being provided the means to save one home, if not his own. While, as expected, Carver is supplied with humanizing moments as the film goes on, he’s still ultimately such a force of evil that to come into contact with him is equivalent to signing away your soul. Nash’s mother and son are simultaneously the reasons that Nash is making bad moral decisions and the moral compasses pointing in the opposite direction. The murky complexity of the crisis itself, which the average American citizen could probably not begin to explain, must be preserved—while distilling the solution down to one humble carpenter’s courageous decision.
I first became acquainted with Bahrani’s work through his short film Plastic Bag. Though based on a familiar and sophomoric conceit—a plastic bag as metaphor for existential ruminations—Werner Herzog’s narration transforms the film into something ecstatic. Bahrani used, or rather misused, Herzog’s presence in a second short film, Lemonade War, which simultaneously oversimplifies economic theory to a degree that’s condescending to the viewer’s intelligence and desecrates Herzog’s famous jungle speech from Burden of Dreams—all of which would be more okay if it was funny. 99 Homes continues Bahrani’s tendency to take on big topics, and to cut them into chewable pieces for his audience. While any reductiveness the film perpetrates is slighter than that of Lemonade War, the best way to enjoy 99 Homes is to focus on the drama and the strong performances and actively resist taking away the film’s tidy takeaway.