Thursday, October 8, 2015

Review: "99 Homes"

“99 Homes” is an earnest little drama that focuses on the foreclosure craze during the Great Recession. It shows how the will to survive can be gradually bended into a willingness to exploit the tragedies of others for personal gain. It’s a deliberately discomfiting portrait of how the line between victim and victimizer can easily blur.

Andrew Garfield is solid and empathetic as Dennis Nash, the true-blue-collar guy who gets evicted from his house, then goes to work for the real estate mogul who threw him out, eventually morphing into his right-hand lackey and reflection.

But Michael Shannon utterly steals the show as his boss, Rick Carver -- a conniving, contemptible yet surprisingly human figure.

Rick’s a cannibal who feels compelled to justify his actions even as he’s employing his teeth to strip the bones. He’s part Donald Trump, dividing the world into admirable winners and wretched losers; part pathetic Willy Loman, so fearful of a fall from grace that he invites it; and part Blake, Alec Baldwin’s wolfen character from “Glengarry Glen Ross,” slavering for his prey.

This is a tiny picture that I hope Oscar voters will remember when it comes time for voting on nominations. Shannon assuredly deserves a spot on the supporting actors’ list.

The story is set circa 2010 in Orlando, Fla. -- my own hometown. I can remember people back home talking about seeing at least two foreclosure signs on every block, whether houses were in the $70,000s or the $700,000s. Places like O-Town and Phoenix, Ariz., were the hot spots for the real estate bubble, with overheated prices producing the most precipitous drops when the bottom fell out.

Dennis is a construction guy, single dad, who lives with his son, Connor (Noah Lomax), and mom (Laura Dern) in a low-roofed bungalow -- the sort of crowded, low-cost housing that fueled Florida’s population boom in the 1950s and ’60s. Work’s been scanty since the real estate bubble popped, so when they get behind on their mortgage payments the courts are quick to whip out of the foreclosure card.

In a harrowing scene, Dennis and his brood are summarily thrown out of the family dwelling, their stuff piled up on the lawn by riff-raff workers, with rent-a-cops warning them of a trip to jail if they don’t comply. Rick is calling the shots, though he pretends to be just the guy with the clipboard carrying out orders. The energy is real and nervy, with everyone resorting to that sort of false politeness – “Yes, sir,” “No, ma’am,” – when they’d really like to take a swing at each other.

They pack up their stuff to a rundown motel, which houses a thriving community of evictees, all convinced they’ll move back into their own home any day now. Dennis catches a break when he stumbles upon Rick and is offered 50 bucks to help out with a vacant property that has been befouled. He possesses enough self-worth left to haggle the nasty job up to two-fifty, and Rick recognizes a hunger he can harness.

“Don’t get emotional about real estate,” Rick intones. “They’re boxes.”

Soon enough, Dennis himself is the one holding the clipboard, running his own crews, talking people into easing their keys into his hand, waving in the police to strong-arm it when required. Rick shows him how to work the grayish angles between private commerce and government subsidy, snagging whopping checks from Fannie Mae by covertly shuffling around appliances and AC’s.

(Air conditioning, for those not in the know, is practically a religion in the Sunshine State, and all must tithe.)

Written (along with Amir Naderi) and directed by Ramin Bahrani, “99 Homes” gets a bit fat in the second half, as the plot plays out its preordained contretemps between diabolical mentor and soul-searching mentee. But it manages to powerfully illustrate the human toll of the foreclose-and-flip game, just as we’ve started to forget the shenanigans and, thereby, open the door to them again.

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