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99 Homes
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by Jay Seaver

"All-too-real estate."
5 stars

If "The Big Short" is the movie that explained the mortgage crisis which would define the early years of the twenty-first century, "99 Homes" is the one that chronicles what it's like on the ground. Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani does an excellent job of tying the two perspectives found there together, building a movie that really claws at its viewers.

The most sympathetic and sadly common perspective belongs to Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a construction worker and single father not only far enough behind on his mortgage that he's facing eviction from his family home, but seeing a site he's been working at abandoned without his getting paid. The man pushing him out of his house is Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a real estate broker focused on acquiring houses cheap and flipping them quickly, and not averse to cutting corners or engaging in a bit of fraud while doing it. When Nash goes to try and get some tools he thought were stolen during his eviction back, Carver takes note of the guy and offers him a bit of work; then, impressed by Nash's determination, winds up giving him more responsibility.

Nash slides very believably from victim to complicit as he tries to recover his foreclosed house, in large part thanks to the work of actor Andrew Garfield. "Regular guy" is a deceptively difficult thing to pull off, but Garfield projects a simple friendliness that doesn't require overt attempts to charm the audience or particularly pointed acts against him to gain a viewer's empathy; he just seems to put a little bit more than the script demands in every scene. That's why his inching toward the dark side seems so easy to accept: He seems motivated enough to be pragmatic, and from there it's a believably short step to breaking a few rules if that's what gets him back in his family home. Garfield makes Nash seem true to himself whether or not the next step seems to torture him, and the way he plays off Laura Dern (as his mother) and Noah Lomax (as his son) creates a tether that the audience can hold on to even when they're nervous about the direction he's moving.

Michael Shannon almost goes too far in the other direction as Carver. His villain instincts are among the best in the business, almost too good at times, because he knows that audiences seldom want a bland antagonist. Initially, he seems to be going too far in that direction, making Carver too entertainingly colorful, but eventually finds a spot where his actions and personality seem to be at a more human scale. His corruption becomes easy to take for granted, thus very easy to see spreading to his new assistant.

I was never a particular far of filmmaker Ramin Bahrani's earlier films, which always struck me as overemphasizing realism without telling an interesting story, but he seems to be striking a much more interesting balance here, with every character's actions always believable - and different as days and weeks pass - but always in service of making us want to know what will happen next. Bahrani and co-writers Amir Naderi and Bahareh Azimi still maintain the spirit of the earlier fly-on-a-wall productions; the side characters and the evictees have the ring of truth in their stories, and even the ones whose situations are dramatic and aligned enough with the story to advance the plot feel drawn fairly directly from reality.

That's what Bahrani has always done, and though doing it with more famous actors smooths out some of the edges, he hasn't lost his eye for a good story. "99 Homes" doesn't quiver with anger the way some stories about the economic meltdown do, but that's never been Bahrani's thing, and telling a story about people dealing with things rather than raging has just as much impact.

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originally posted: 01/24/16 13:12:07
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Venice Film Festival For more in the 2014 Venice Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2014 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/17/16 mr.mike Begins strong then falters, with some unconvincing detours. 3 stars
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