Movie Review: 99 Homes (2015)
I think I’m getting hard-hearted.
In “99 Homes,” written and directed by Ramin Bahrani (“Goodbye Solo”), we’re supposed to root for Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a young carpenter/construction worker who can’t find work in Florida during the global financial meltdown, and he winds up losing his family home.
Admittedly, that’s a powerful scene. In court, the judge tells him he has to vacate the property but he has 30 days to file an appeal. But the very next day the cops (or off-duty cops dressed up for private contracting?) show up, along with Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the real estate broker who foreclosed on the home, and they order the family, including Nash’s mom, Lynn (Laura Dern), and his son, Connor (Noah Lomax), out. In two minutes. “This isn’t your home, son,” Carver tells him. Later, amid chaos, crying and shouting, Carver adds, “The two minutes is a courtesy. You’re trespassing right now.” Imagine that. You are given two minutes to gather all the possessions you have, to leave all you know, and this sliver of time is called “a courtesy.” The free hand of the market is often a fist.
And after the two minutes? I wondered if they would lose everything. Instead, sketchy-looking laborers simply dump the rest onto what was once your front lawn. You take what you can and leave with your tail between your legs, while the broker who foreclosed, who is actually making a killing on the deal, stands on what was once your porch smoking a cigarillo.
(I thought the cigarillo a bit much.)
Nash and his family wind up in a motel-like way station with the rest of the wretched refuse (pst: blacks/Hispanics), but he returns. His life turned to shit because he’d chosen the wrong moment to take a loan out on his mortgage to buy tools for his construction/carpentry business, and one of Carver’s scumbag laborers swiped some of those tools. It’s the final insult. So he goes to Carver’s business, finds the guy, starts a fight. Just then, Carver emerges with the news that another of his homes has been abandoned with the toilet overflowing and a shit stream is spilling out into the yard. Nash tags along and reveals himself to be resourceful and willing to get dirty. And Carver offers him a job.
That’s the set-up.
Bailing out winners
It’s a good one. In order to survive and get back his home, Nash has to work for the man who turned him out of his home; and his job is turning other people out of their homes. Carver puts it this way:
You go to church, Nash? One in a 100 is going to get on that ark, son. Every other poor soul is going to drown.
He also puts it in Donald Trump fashion:
America doesn't bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners—by rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.
Carver says he began his career wanting to put people in homes, not take them out of them, but the world changed. The government deregulated, banks gave out subprime loans, and everyone tried to capitalize on the easy money to be made in the housing market. Then pop went the bubble. Now Carver is getting rich off of everyone else’s slide into poverty. He shows Nash how to get rich, too. But unlike Carver, Nash is conflicted. He feels bad about it. He still wants the people he’s throwing out of their homes to like him.
He's so conflicted he lies to his mom and his son about where the new money is coming from. He claims it’s construction work. He doesn’t let them know he’s become the enemy. He keeps pretending you don’t have to do what you have to do in order to survive in the world.
That’s why I liked Carver, the movie’s ostensible villain, more than Nash, the movie’s ostensible hero. Carver is clear-eyed about who he is and the way the world works. It’s not heroic, it’s just interesting. Nash's conflict just isn't interesting to me.
I was even more annoyed with Nash's mother, sitting back and moralizing while she contributed ... anything? She objected to the way Nash brought them money? Helped them survive? I would’ve liked a scene where Nash told her, gently maybe, but with an undercurrent, that her kind of morality was for the comfortable. And they were no longer comfortable.
Stacking the decks
“99 Homes” is worthwhile because it shows us that modern America isn’t about hard work; it's about working the system. That's how you get ahead.
But Bahrani screws it up. He doesn’t let the movie live in the gray area between Nash’s morality and Carver’s lack of it. He stacks the decks against Carver. He turns the moral issue, with its undefined lines, into a legal one, with its clear demarcations. He gives us a clarity we don't need.
In clean, conference rooms, Carver makes a deal to turn 100 people out of their homes by a certain date in order for him and Nash to capitalize. Unfortunately, the 100th turns out to be a problem. He’s this guy, Frank (Tim Guinee), that Nash vaguely knows, and with whom he sympathizes, and Frank has actually done the paperwork to keep his home. So Carver sends Nash to falsify the record so they get the home anyway. But then Frank flips out, holes up with his family in his home, brings out a rifle. He’s making a stand in the grand, stupid American tradition. It’s actually a little nutty. This is the guy that Nash hopes will like him? That we’re supposed to sympathize with? The guy shooting at the cops?
Of course this is the moment Nash finally opts for morality. He enters the fray, arms raised, and owns up to falsifying the record. Frank stands down, Nash is arrested. And in the back of the patrol car, waiting to be taken to jail, Nash looks over and sees Frank’s tousle-haired boy staring at him. And the boy smiles.
Nash is liked!
Really? Is that supposed to be a glimmer of hope? The smile from the kid? Some glimmer. The kid's father will be arrested and imprisoned, so they'll lose the home anyway. If Carver is arrested someone else will simply take his place. Nash, he gone. The real estate market continues. The free hand continues. It's the saddest of endings and the movie doesn't know it. It thinks it's giving us a gift.