Andrew Garfield in '99 Homes'
Image: Broad Green Pictures

Andrew Garfield in '99 Homes'

The speech that unscrupulous real estate mogul Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) delivers to his protegee Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) in the middle of 99 Homes could function as a thesis statement for director Ramin Bahrani's whole body of work.

“America doesn't bail out the losers,” Carver says. “America was built by bailing out the winners.”

It's this idea of a country built “of the winners, by the winners, for the winners”—and those who get caught on the flip side—that obsesses Bahrani, one of the finest American filmmakers working today. His movies (like Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo, and Man Push Cart) are engaging and unsentimental narratives about people caught in the crosshairs of American dreams gone bad: immigrants, homeless children, elderly and lonely people, and in this case, the working-class folks whose only reference point for trickle-down economics is the unemployment and foreclosure that trickled down when the big banks (almost) went under.

Bahrani works in the tradition of the Italian neorealists—filmmakers often influenced by Christian humanist thought—who told stories of regular working-class people struggling with poverty, injustice, and oppression in Italy in the wake of World War II. He also has spiritual siblings in the Dardennes brothers (our review of Two Days, One Night), the Belgian filmmakers who zero in on people struggling to make ends meet.

Andrew Garfield in '99 Homes'
Image: Broad Green Pictures

Andrew Garfield in '99 Homes'

The difference is that Bahrani is working for an American audience, and in his last few films—presumably the ones where he had a larger budget—he wisely cast well-known American actors with name recognition (Shannon is always insane and addictively watchable, as is Garfield, who was our most recent Spider-Man; Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron anchored his 2012 film At Any Price). His scripts work with the increased pacing and plot that American audiences expect. He uses the problems and places of contemporary America as settings for stories that could happen to anyone, and then (mostly) avoids preaching—he just tells a good story.

That is why it's startling to me, especially given the strong populist streak present in many contemporary American conservatives' (and liberals') politics, that Bahrani's films still fly under the radar for a lot of moviegoers. It's even more startling that Christians tend not to have heard of him. And yet, movies that challenge our easy narratives about people we prefer to forget or lump into large aggregate sums aren't entertaining, and they don't make most of us feel good about ourselves. And Carver's “winners” speech is oddly reminiscent of some political campaigners we've been hearing—so maybe I shouldn't be so surprised.

Article continues below

That speech is pretty ironic, too, because Nash and Carver first meet when Carver arrives to evict Nash—and his mother (Laura Dern) and son—from his family home, somewhere near Orlando in 2010, in the aftermath (or during-math) of the housing crisis. Nash is a jack-of-all-trades construction worker who is out of work, since all of his employers have also gone under because of the crisis, and his house has been repossessed by the bank. Carver, a real estate investor with a local empire, represents the bank.

The Nash family move to a motel that turns out to be half populated by people who've also been evicted. And almost by accident, Nash and Carver run into each other again. That chance meeting more or less sets off a mini Breaking Bad trajectory for Nash, with moral decisions to make at every turn, ones with big consequences. It crosses an inverted Horatio Alger boostrap-puller with a taut, unpredictable thriller.

Michael Shannon in '99 Homes'
Image: Broad Green Pictures

Michael Shannon in '99 Homes'

99 Homes is very good at showing that the housing crisis is not a problem that belongs to one person. Nash and his neighbors, some of whom took bad investment risks and some of whom bit off far more than they could chew, are certainly partly to blame, something the film makes clear. And Carver and his ethics are certainly at fault. So are many big banks, for their equally unethical behavior (thoroughly recounted in several books by Michael Lewis, including Liar's Poker and The Big Short, an adaptation of which is making its way to the big screen right now). The laws that pit neighbor against neighbor, the overburdened and underresourced courts, the lawmakers who made things legal that probably shouldn't be—all of these come up, in turn.

“They all got a sob story, but the law is the law,” Carver tells Nash, “and that’s the side you’re on.”

Nash isn't even “the least of these,” and he knows it. He's able-bodied, and his family is healthy and loving. But Bahrani puts others in front of us too: a single parent, families with small children, an old man with nowhere to go at all. Some of them just got hit by bad luck, and others made bad decisions, sure, but that doesn't make the human experience any less harrowing.

Article continues below

But Bahrani, wisely, keeps us zeroed in on Nash and the moral and emotional turmoil he experiences while trying to figure out what he's supposed to be doing here—on the one hand, wanting to house and feed his mother and son, and on the other hand, trying to figure out how much grey area just fades to black. Bahrani's camera, mimicking his narrative move, zooms in on Garfield several times as he thinks and wrestles and struggles.

Andrew Garfield in '99 Homes'
Image: Broad Green Pictures

Andrew Garfield in '99 Homes'

It's that movement, closer and closer to the subject, that makes us uncomfortable—isn't this his private business?—but also forces us to be in his head. After all, what would you do? Starve? Leave your family in harm's way? What if the bank—perfectly legally—deposited two sheriffs and a stranger who claimed to represent the bank on your doorstep, told you that you had two minutes to gather your things and evacuate the property on which you were now trespassing, then dumped all your things on the front lawn and changed the lock?

I know this doesn't sound like a fun night out at the movies. And it's not really supposed to be. Yet 99 Homes is gripping, even funny at times, an expertly-made film that places us in the very recent past and urges us not to look away. That is well worth your time, and mine.

Caveat Spectator

There's some profanity in the film, enough to earn its R-rating, notably a number of f-bombs and a few ugly sexual euphemisms used as epithets. The film's very first shot involves blood, because someone has shot himself in his own bathroom, though we only see a leg and a hand—the rest is behind a wall. Several guns make an appearance; a couple go off. Some fistfights. A party with some drinking; another scene where a character passes out from drinking too much. A character who has both a wife and a mistress. A brief mention of a prom night “mistake.” One house where sewage has flooded and covered the floor throughout the house, and we see feces on the floor (vomit, as you might imagine, appears briefly in the scene as well). Loads of unethical behavior, and it's hard to see people evicted over and over.

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She tweets @alissamarie.

99 Homes
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Average Rating
(1 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (For language including some sexual references, and a brief violent image.)
Directed By
Ramin Bahrani
Run Time
1 hour 52 minutes
Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern
Theatre Release
October 09, 2015 by Broad Green Pictures
Browse All Movie Reviews By: