99 Homes is a very American horror story, a red ink massacre of dreams during the great recession, when houses and hope were foreclosed.
Set in 2010 at real estate's nadir, 99 Homes is both a tutorial in fraud and a suffocating thriller. Director and co-writer Ramin Bahrani researched his film in Florida (including Tampa Bay) and set it in Orlando, a sunny symbol of paradise stolen. 99 Homes skillfully lays out how it happened, one fictional story speaking for thousands of true ones.
Bahrani begins with foreclosure's worst end, an owner's suicide before he's evicted. The camera pans around the living room, bloodstained walls, family artifacts, coming to rest on Rick Carver's merciless face. Rick has a mess on his hands now, a crime scene in a house he foreclosed for a bank to flip. Other suckers who bought beyond their means and didn't read the fine print are on the line.
Rick's cold-blooded nature is obvious in Michael Shannon's lacerating gaze, his cubed jaw spitting orders and insults through a mouth barely opening. Rick is the monster in this horror story, a necktied cobra draining life from families with a single phone call, or a doorstep visit.
One front door is opened by Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a single father sharing a house with his mother (Laura Dern). Construction jobs are scarce, Dennis is a few payments behind and conflicting advice he received from the bank has Rick and deputies at his door for eviction. Bahrani films this in a gripping one-shot rush, from cozy home to the curb.
Dennis' desperation leads his family to the foreclosure world beyond bank ledgers; seedy motels where evictees roost, degrading side jobs, and in Dennis' case, a deal with a devil. Rick hires him as a laborer, soon promoted to assistant, kicking out other homeowners. "You can't take real estate personally," Rick tells Dennis, but he will, with suspenseful results.
Bahrani and co-writer Amir Naderi use Dennis' apprenticeship to explore the unscrupulous ways people like Rick profited from this perfect storm of envy, greed and deregulation. The range of scams is stunning, from stealing air conditioner units then selling them back to the bank plus installation costs, to $3,500 "cash for keys" offers.
99 Homes combines the insight of documentary filmmaking with a thriller's urgency, opening our eyes to a complex, real-life tragedy while keeping it entertaining. A gun is displayed early on, so the threat of violence is always there, especially if someone on the other side of that knocked door has nothing else to lose.
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