* * * 1/2
More than any other filmmaker of the moment, Ramin Bahrani charts stories of disenfranchised men who face moral quagmires afoul of the American dream. In 2013’s superb At Any Price, Dennis Quaid was a Midwestern farmer who would stop at nothing to preserve the family business and legacy, which included lying, cheating and murder.
His new film, the intense social drama 99 Homes, stars Andrew Garfield as a young Orlando contractor whose family home is foreclosed. The architect of this disaster is a reprehensible real estate shark, played with his typical high-bar complexity by Michael Shannon as one of the great recent movie villains, and the stuff of which Best Supporting Actors are made.
Shannon’s Rick Carver is a Florida realtor who assists local banks in foreclosures, usually typical middle-class families behind in payments but seeking court protections but caught in a tangle of paperwork and bureaucracy. Enter Carver and the local police, who casually eject them from their homes, taking no responsibility for the action while littering their lawns with their possessions.
On the other side of this conundrum is Garfield’s Dennis Nash, his son and mother (Laura Dern), removed from the modest ranch home he’s grown up in before settling down in a transient motel populated by those of similar misfortunes.
Nash’s attempts to confront Carver ironically result in his employment by the very man who displaced him when he proves that no dirty job is too dirty. This partnership sets the stage for a reversal of fortune as Nash becomes the evictor himself, partnering with Carver on a 99-home repossession deal and setting up a dog-eat-dog dynamic never lost on the initially reticent young man, in over his head.
Bahrani gives full due to his morality play’s evictees—parents with infants, the elderly convinced their reverse mortgages are legit and most memorably, a desperate father driven around the bend by a bogus court judgment—and their struggles here are believably written and run the gamut from being afraid to desperation to violence. The screenplay expertly charts these fine lines and transitions.
Garfield’s impressive, vulnerability—his first eviction is a doozy—drives the heart of 99 Homes, and the actor, previously most effective in The Social Network and especially Never Let Me Go, explores new territory here in a rich role that allows him to be nakedly afraid in bottom-rung desperation, focused only on putting food in his son’s mouth and a roof over his mother’s head. Dern, the most empathetic of actresses, has a minor role here but an important one, holding fast to her values while she sees her son’s slipping away.
Shannon, the ever fascinating, off-kilter actor who has redefined what it means to have an edge in films like Revolutionary Road and Take Shelter, has less of an arc but gets the films best lines, a symbol of capitalism run amok and a conscience unchecked, a fantastically successful businessman without a soul, a predatory animal stalking the wounded flock, pursuer of the American dream while eradicating the same.
Personal drama, ethical treatise and social provocation, 99 Homes is one of the year’s most gripping movies.