*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Ramin Bahrani
STARS Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon
Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in 99 Homes (Photo: Broad Green)
Say this for 99 Homes, the new film from writer-director and Winston-Salem native Ramin Bahrani: It contains arguably the most truthful snatch of dialogue to be found in any movie released so far in 2015. "America doesn't bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners, by rigging a nation of the winners, by the winners, for the winners."
The person offering this bastardization of a snippet from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a real estate maven who's explaining how the American Dream is pretty much stacked from the get-go. The person listening to this lecture is Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a hard-working handyman who, along with his mom (Laura Dern) and young son (Noah Lomax), has recently been evicted from his home for falling behind on payments and is now forced to live in a grungy motel. The year is 2008, the housing market has gone belly up, and property swindlers like Carver are getting filthy rich while those around them are sinking without lifelines.
Nash is luckier than most: He has a shot at success ... provided he's comfortable with selling his soul. Because even though it was Carver who served the papers — and brought the police officers — that forced Nash and his family out of their house, Nash accepts a job from him. Carver believes that the young man can excel in the real estate business, provided he shuck his compassion. For his part, Nash has no choice but to accept the job, since he needs money to survive. And just like that, Nash is throwing people out of their homes, forcing them to the curb with only a handful of possessions but a mountain of anger, frustration, fear and regret.
For most of its running time, 99 Homes is a harrowing drama, as ordinary folks are repeatedly stripped of their homes — when a befuddled elderly man with no family or friends is shown being evicted, it's almost unbearable to watch. The whole movie basically plays like a round of "There but for the grace of God go I," and it's hard to fault Nash for doing what he must to save his family. Carver is allowed a few interesting shadings as well — we hate what he represents, but damn if he doesn't nail a few hard truths here and there. Shannon has been great on numerous occasions — and he's in top form here as well — so the surprise is Garfield. All wrong as the amazing Spider-Hipster, he excels in this picture, convincing as a man whose basic decency is tested and compromised at almost every turn.
Bahrani, whose Goodbye Solo landed on my Honorable Mentions list as among the best of 2009, only falters heading into the resolution, when whopping coincidences and thuddingly obvious developments prove to be the order of the day. Worse, the film doesn't really have an ending (odd, since this was supposedly based on a real incident). The preview audience clapped at the tidy little fates assigned to each character — presented as dutifully as the Wizard handing out a heart, a brain and courage — but Bahrani seems to have swept the real developments under the rug. The denouement isn't ambiguous as much as it's nonexistent, and were we to revisit all the characters in a year's time, we would probably learn that Bahrani misled us, that the status quo is intact, and that the winners have only gotten fatter, happier and richer.