Given the devastating effect it had on the U.S. economy, it’s a bit of a shock how few movies have been made about the credit-crunch housing crisis. ’99 Homes’ is the first to take it on directly. Ramin Bahrani’s feature is a searingly painful examination of that world, even if it hammers home its arguments a little too strongly. Essentially, it’s a remake of ‘Wall Street’ set among the wicked world of house snatchers. The film is hinged on two remarkable performances that are worth the price of admission alone.
The movie kicks off with an extraordinarily powerful sequence that sets the tone for what follows. Andrew Garfield stars as Dennis Nash, a broke construction worker struggling to keep the family home for his mother and son. One morning, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) shows up with some police officers to repossess their house and does so without mercy. In a scene that feels more like a transcription of actual events than scripted drama, Carver coldly explains that they have a few minutes to gather their belongings before everything is moved onto the lawn and he takes possession of the building. It’s a gut-wrenching and humiliatingly inhumane moment to watch, and it captures the embarrassment and pain of such a situation viscerally.
From there, Oliver Stone’s ‘Wall Street’ dictates the script’s structure as Dennis reluctantly becomes a right hand man to Carver while he continues his dirty business. At first, Dennis merely clears out people’s homes as they look on in tears, but soon he’s watching over the business under Carver’s guidance. Scene after scene of evictions take place, each difficult to watch, with Garfield giving a master class in acting as he develops the emotional calluses necessary to do the job, while Shannon stands back in steely-eyed silence. Dennis attempts to keep his new job a secret from his family, but as the checks get bigger and the tasks Carver assigns slide from immoral to illegal, it gets harder and harder to keep the job and the secret.
As a portrait of a horrible moment in history, ’99 Homes’ is a powerful piece of work. Rather than focusing on the shady economics that created the housing crisis, the filmmakers focus directly on the human cost. Watching people lose their homes is horrible, and watching Dennis sell his soul to capitalize on the situation is fascinating.
The often underrated Andrew Garfield is excellent here. Freed from any and all ‘Spider-Man’ responsibilities, Garfield sinks his teeth into a humble man eroding his moral compass and finds both pathos and empathy at the character’s core. Shannon delivers another of his great big screen monsters, this time in a more quiet manner. He’s someone who gave up his soul for money without remorse, able to shrug off destroying families simply by knowing that he’ll make a buck. It’s cold and brilliant work from the actor. In lesser hands, the character might have seemed cartoonish, but Shannon makes him feel painfully real and somehow even manages to be the first person in history to make wielding an electronic cigarette feel intimidating.
Bahrani films his scenes in long takes with handheld cameras to increase the sense of intimacy and realism. During the most devastating scenes (specifically the evictions), the movie can feel unbearable to watch. Unfortunately, once he weaves all these sequences into a narrative, he begins to lose this sense of naturalism. The undeniable ‘Wall Street’ influence unfortunately brings Oliver Stone’s sledgehammer thesis-ing along with it. The final scenes are so overbearingly on-the-nose and weighed down by needless monologues over-explaining the movie’s message that they almost undo all the good work the filmmaker executed to get to that point.
Thankfully, the finale isn’t a movie killer. ’99 Homes’ is absolutely worth seeking out. However, that ending is the difference between what could have been a great movie and merely a very good one.