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Rick Carver is the last person you want showing up at your front door. It’s not just that he oozes sleaze, but as an opportunistic real estate broker, he profits by evicting people, which he does with unflinching efficiency.
In the drama “99 Homes,” he is brought to life by today’s virtuoso of villainy, Michael Shannon, who lumbers around tossing off expletives, parading his new Range Rover and puffing e-cigarettes. All Rick’s money can’t hide the fact that he doesn’t look well, though, as if he’s rotting from the inside.
His foil is single dad Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a strapping young construction worker who lives in his childhood home in Orlando with his son, Connor (Noah Lomax), and mother, Lynn (Laura Dern). But not for long. Dennis can’t find work and gets behind on his mortgage payments, so Rick and his cop cronies inevitably come knocking. Protestations are futile. “This isn’t your home, son,” Rick says, then gives them two minutes – as “a courtesy” – to collect some belongings.
This is the first of many eviction scenes, and they take on a sickening familiarity. First there’s the confusion, then the pleading; indignation follows before, finally, resignation. The young couples and the befuddled old man and the parents carrying tiny babies all end up the same way: standing on a curb surrounded by as many valuables as they could carry, while their neighbors look on.
The agonizing desperation of the evicted is almost more than a viewer can stomach, as if we’ve stumbled upon some intimate moment we should never have seen. Director Ramin Bahrani, who wrote the script with Amir Naderi and Bahareh Azimi, spent significant time researching the housing crisis, including witnessing actual evictions, and the episodes he has recreated feel powerfully realistic.
Dennis ends up moving his family into a motel that’s half-filled with other subprime mortgage casualties where someone always seems to be shouting curse words. His need to get out so overwhelms him that he makes a Faustian deal: He agrees to work for Rick if it means Dennis can eventually get his family’s home back.
At first, it’s not so bad – fixing air conditioners and solving plumbing problems – and the money’s good. But it’s not long before Dennis starts helping out with shadier business and is even assigned to evict honest, hardworking people just like him.
“99 Homes” isn’t just a straightforward drama. It’s a suspense movie that opens with a bloody crime scene, has Rick wearing a gun strapped to his leg and features a throbbing score by Antony Partos and Matteo Zingales. The movie also dabbles in advocacy, aiming to get people talking about injustices worth discussing.
The success of that attempt depends on Dennis remaining likeable despite his increasingly dirty dealings, and Garfield does his darndest, stroking his son’s hair or making his eyes well up with tears when he evicts a family for the first time. He was once Peter Parker, after all, and he brings with him the same mix of boyishness and responsibility.
But even Spider-Man can’t compete with Shannon, who owns every scene he’s in. His character is grotesque, sure, but he’s also funny and quick, plus he makes some compelling arguments. “America doesn’t bail out the losers,” he tells Dennis during a tirade that somehow escapes melodrama. “America was built by bailing out the winners.”
Cynical? Sure. But after watching a movie based on many true stories, it’s hard not to agree with that view of our society.
Three stars. Rated R. Contains strong language, including some sexual references, and a brief violent image. 112 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.
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