“99 Homes” is a film of such devastation and tension that many of the people who read this review may not be able to watch it. Over two hours, Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani (“Chop Shop,” “Goodbye Solo”), who was called numerous times by Roger Ebert the greatest and most promising director of this generation, tells a story of the economic meltdown that caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs and homes in the real estate bubble. This is not a film of especially showy direction or a greatly complicated plot but instead something similar to David Fincher directing a Neorealist film: Moments from life, unsentimental and real, are spun into a single, agonizing moment.
There is, of course, a plot: Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a young construction worker in Orlando who lives with his mother (Laura Dern) and his young son Connor (Noah Lomax), has his home foreclosed on by a real estate agent named Ray Carver (Michael Shannon), who carries an ankle-holstered pistol and smokes an electronic cigarette.
Stuck in a motel, Carver offers Nash a deal: become his protégé and he’ll give him back his house. What at first consists of only doing construction work quickly becomes more and more Faustian as Carver teaches Nash exactly how to scam the government in order to maximize profits. Bahrani, alongside his co-writer Amir Naderi, have said the story was inspired by actual events and that every action Shannon’s character takes is legal. In a series of montages that are almost overwhelmingly powerful, Garfield goes from home to home alongside police officers, evicting residents from their house, doing his best to help them.
This is where the film gains its power. Shannon’s character explains, in an astonishing series of monologues throughout the film, that nothing he does is strictly wrong. Evicting people? Entirely justified given the failure of the homeowners to honor their end of the mortgage. Getting rid of the appliances before inspection in homes then putting them back in for a profit? This is a governmental loophole waiting to be exploited. Even when Shannon crosses the horizon into the directly illegal he can make a case he did nothing wrong.
Shannon’s performance is one of the most fascinating of the year and definitely the bravest. To portray a character so willfully one dimensional in his desire to make money, with no apologies and no softness, is a challenge that even the most skilled actors would balk at. Shannon, so great at playing the unhinged, instead chooses to portray him as something altogether more disturbing: nakedly pragmatic. He plays a real person in this film, with all that entails.
Garfield, who makes his first film after his attempt in the superhero game, was the correct casting choice. He has an old-school charm in this, a hearty, simple performance that brings to mind Gregory Peck, or perhaps Richard Harris when he was young. Clad in a tan and sporting a Florida accent, Garfield goes full circle from kind to hollow to kind again, with the climactic scene revealing him as one of the best actors of his generation.
However, it feels wrong to judge a movie like this on the quality of its performances or by the writing. How are we supposed to enjoy something like this, a movie that stares unflinchingly as any documentary when it comes to people’s pain? Garfield’s character was offered an escape, but how many were? How many others live today on the streets, having lost everything? Shannon tells Garfield in the film that only one in a hundred make it onto the ark when the world floods. “99 Homes” isn’t about the financial crisis or about a good man learning what’s important. It’s about what you will do to survive and whether it means giving yourself up.