Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield are opposing economic forces in 99 Homes, a deliberate and obvious recessionary American thriller set in the scraggly, ugly, ragged edge of the popped housing bubble. The older man is a Grim Reaper of real estate, evicting exhausted homeowners in a flurry of bullying panic, the better to flip the house for a nice profit. He’s colluding with banks, police, and lawmakers to line his pockets, exploiting loopholes, cheating the system, and calling that winning. The younger man is one of his victims, a single dad who, along with his son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern), is thrown out of his family home after an unsuccessful appeal. Desperate to make money any way he can, he takes a job working for the very man who so slimly kicked his family to the curb. The young guy wears jeans and smokes; the older guy wears suits and vapes. They’re a study in contrasts, naïveté versus cynicism, good intentions versus heartless greed, together making the Faustian bargain we call the American dream.
Painting in big strokes, writer-director Ramin Bahrani combines the low-key observation of his breakthrough indies, films like Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, intimate class-conscious portraits of marginalized urban poverty, and the swaggering melodrama of his overripe corporate-agriculture-fighting-family-farms message movie, the pleasurably outsized At Any Price. The blend is an uneasy mix of scene chewing monologues and pokey naturalism. We follow Garfield as the need for money draws him into the shady underbelly of Florida real estate, the vulture capitalists preying on misfortune sown by the very industry in which they operate. “We don’t bail out the losers!” Shannon snaps, as if he’s prepping to open a Trump fundraiser. He’s made to speak the film’s moral perspective by shouting the opposite, unblinking in the face of the tragedy Bahrani wants to portray. Garfield, on the other hand, is asked to simply inhabit its lessons.
Towering over his new employee, Shannon’s shark lays out his worldview: America is a nation “of the winners, by the winners, for the winners!” It’s screaming blunt moralizing, while the movie’s message is better imbued in Garfield’s uneasy posture and embarrassed expressions as he’s forced to serve eviction notices, suddenly on the other side of the very shock he experienced not so long ago. He is living in a cheap motel room with his son and mother, surrounded by other similarly displaced families. Then he heads out on the job, where he’s creating insecurity in lives of people just like him. It’s a nasty position in which to be, especially when the siren song of material success shows him McMansions glittering for those who are able and willing to step on others to get there. This is the sort of deeply felt hot-button message movie that so cleanly and clearly lays out an obvious wrong, that its most agonizing moments caused bile to build up in the back of my throat.
Watching economic devastation and its exploitation is hard to take, especially as Garfield’s pained expression and torn conscience run up against the cold eyes of Shannon’s harsh money-grabbing, property-cheating worldview. It’s all too real, and yet Bahrani pushes past the immediate feeling of right and wrong, overemphasizing the devilish bargain with overheated speeches and undercooked characters. They’re symbols, no matter how good the actors are. Garfield is every blue-collar worker shoved out of a comfortable life, and Shannon is every suit who did the pushing. There’s not a lot of nuance here in the design, a defeatist plot loaded with coincidences, built only to shine a light on a murky corner of wrongdoing presented in obvious dichotomies. The muddy digital photography, at times a nearly unwatchable storm of fuzzy washed-out pixels, is an inadvertent compliment to the film’s unsatisfying approach: it’s too bright, and too smeared, starkly revealing too much while flattening the picture.
Still, what keeps this well-intentioned monotonous one-note movie marginally interesting are the performances. Garfield and Shannon are allowed space to breathe complexities into their characters that aren’t necessarily inherent in the material. The former reveals mild shark-like ambition through his psychological and economic turmoil, shaking off sadness to earn some dough, while the latter lets sneaking warmth bleed in around the edges of his evil eye for exploiting his worst tendencies. Then there’s Dern who plays the pure conscience of the movie, with literally nothing more to do than register the wrongness of what’s going on around her. She somehow makes that into something like a real character, a minor miracle. But what Bahrani does with these characters is so schematically obvious, clashing two mirrored men in an uneasy business relationship to the breaking point, the better to leave us wrung out with reminders of our country’s debased and broken response to continually deepening inequality.