Of all the scary guys Michael Shannon has ever played — sociopaths, murderers, hell, even General Zod in a Superman movie — none is more frightening that his character in “99 Homes.”
Because Richard “Rich”Carver is a villain we know, a pitiless predator able to put on a neutral, if never sympathetic, face for the people he’s kicking out of their houses.
“This isn’t your home, sir,” he says to them. “America doesn’t bail out losers,” he says behind their backs.
You wonder if he enjoys it, because as a high-rolling Orlando real estate broker, he could just leave the work to the compliant sheriff’s deputies who call him “boss” when he starts his stacked-up days of eviction after eviction. He carries a gun in an ankle holster in case things get ugly. And they sometimes do. When we meet him, he’s looking at the body of a home-owner who just shot himself in the bathroom upon realizing that he’s lost everything.
Shannon’s Carver is amoral evil incarnate, an almost certain Oscar nomination, and the best reason to see “99 Homes,” a wrenching parable about the housing bubble and the mass foreclosures that followed it a few years back.
Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a construction worker, unemployed as Orlando’s housing boom goes bust. He meets Carver on the worst day of his life. Like many others, he thought his day in court would go better, that even after the curt dismissal by a callous judge, he had time to appeal. No. He, his mom (Laura Dern) and his adoring son have two minutes to gather their possessions and “vacate the premises.”
Carver’s team moves in, moves them out, and, adding insult to injury, steals some of the tools he’ll need when he goes back to work. That’s when he confronts Carver at his office, and when Carver, sensing how desperate he is, decides he can use that.
“You’ve gotta ask yourself, what did you do wrong that your family is living in a motel.”
Instant payment for unsavory jobs lures Nash in. He’ll earn the cash to get his house back, and try not to think about the air conditioners he removes from Carver’s new purchases, which he’ll then sell back to the bank or government entities that now own the homes. Nash tries not to look in the faces of the old, the confused, the working class people who are losing a lifetime of labor in two minutes with these evictions.
The lean, delicate featured Garfield is a tough sell as a rawboned jack-of-all-trades homebuilder. He’s most convincing at letting that flicker of remorse show, that sense that Nash knows he’s crossed each ethical line an instant before he crosses it.
Character actor Tim Guinee (TV’s “Hell on Wheels”) is impressive as the one homeowner that Nash most identifies with, the one we’re sure will test his conscience the most.
Writer-director Ramin Bahrani has built his career on character studies in the working poor corners of American culture — “Goodbye, Solo,” “Chop Shop” “Man Push Cart.” Here, he’s found his most accessible, sympathetic subject and most indelible characters. Shooting in a reasonable Louisiana facsimile of Orlando — uglier, with plumper police and tackier motels — he creates a sad home movie of the American housing crisis,with every eviction treated like the tragedy and violent act it is.
The script has but one false line — an actress’s vanity revealed by Dern’s hair-dresser/mother telling her son “I had you so young.” Bahrani and co-writer Amir Naderi take the most care in giving Shannon, one of the best heavies in American cinema, plenty of room to underplay this Master of his Universe. Carver is cruel, profane, short-tempered and greedy. He sees himself as a victim who got smart, and his tirade about the banks, the government and greedy-gullible home owners feels like talking points from the Wall Street hypocrites of cable TV business news.
Shannon makes Carver a Gordon Gekko that much of America will recognize with a wince, the personification of the winner-take-all economy, shape-shifting and playing the angles. It wasn’t called “the gig economy” back in 2010, when this is set. But the genius in Shannon’s turn is that we can tell he’s doing the math that will allow him to screw over not just home owners, regulators and banks. He’s already got a handle on cheating employees out of benefits and a future, a true man ahead of his time and an Oscar winning performance in the making.
MPAA Rating:R for language including some sexual references, and a brief violent image
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Tim Guinee
Credits: Directed by Ramin Bahrani, script by Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi. A Broadgreen release.
Running time: 1:51