A man slouches on his bathroom toilet, dead from a gunshot wound, on the day he and his family are to be evicted from their Orlando home for overdue mortgage payments. The bloody scene doesn’t faze Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a skilled, amoral repo man designated by the banks to take over forfeited homes. Joking that the man killed himself because he ordered pizza and his wife wanted Chinese, Carver brusquely instructs his gang to clean up the place, to escort the dead man’s survivors outside and dump their possessions onto the front lawn. Trespassers in their own home, the family has an hour to clear up and clear out.
This three- or four-minute shot opens 99 Homes with cool, brutal elegance. Set in 2010, Ramin Bahrani’s sharp drama, which has its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and will play this weekend at the Telluride festival, casts the recent and lingering housing crisis as a tense social parable of the domineering one percent and the imperiled 99. Much more cogent and coherent than Bahrani’s At Any Price, which investigated the ethical dilemma of a farmer driven to corruption, the new movie sets up a Faustian bargain with the Mephistopehelia Carver. His Faust is Dennis Nash, played by Andrew Garfield. Mothballing his Spider-Man Spandex, Garfield slips into the skin of a dispossessed tradesman who can save his family only by learning, and perhaps joining, the forces of evil.
Dennis, his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and his son Connor (Noah Lomax) are among Carver’s eviction victims, forced to move everything they still own into a small room in a motel packed with the dispossessed. To earn desperately needed money, and with the hope of repurchasing his home, he goes to work for Carver — first as a day laborer literally sweeping up the shit from a backed-up toilet, then as his boss’s mentor and executioner. Think of It’s a Wonderful Life, and imagine that, to get his home back, Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey had gone to work for Lionel Barrymore’s evil Mr. Potter. Then think of 99 Homes as a social parable in Exorcist terms: Can Dennis learn the brutal details of repossessing homes without letting the demon Carver possess his tender soul?
Somebody had to profit from the Great Recession that forced millions from their homes, and Carver is one of them. You could call him a vulture circling the carcass of the American dream of home ownership; he’d say he’s pursuing a (mostly) legal business, to which he applies a coroner’s dispassion and icy skill. Another unpaid mortgage, even if it leads to a man’s suicide, means another job for him. “Don’t get emotional about real estate,” he says. “They all got a sob story, but the law’s the law.” One might agree with Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist, that “If the law supposes that… the law is a ass — a idiot.”
A spiritual cousin to the sensitive, fretful young men Garfield played in The Social Network, Never Let Me Go and The Amazing Spider-Man, Dennis at first doesn’t have the patter down when he knocks on doors to evict homeowners. He apologizes for, doesn’t command, the situation; and unlike Carver, he is loath to make eye contact with his marks. But he’s smart, and knows that making good money often requires a soiled conscience. He’s a bit like Eddie, the debt-ridden gambler in the 2008 Vegas: Based on a True Story (also shown at Venice, and directed by 99 Homes co-scripter Amir Naderi), who is told that robbers may have buried $1 million in his highly mortgaged property. As Eddie went prospecting for gold in his own backyard, so Dennis tries to reclaim his own home by throwing people just like him out of theirs.
Beginning and ending with a forlorn man’s gunplay, the movie sometimes uses the blunt tools of melodrama to make its points; and Garfield can get adolescently dewy in skirmishes with his Manichan mentor. But it’s a great showcase for Shannon, who magnetizes all eyes, like a cobra in the corner. “America doesn’t bail out losers,” he says. “America bails out winners.” Shannon as actor and Carver as charismatic scoundrel are winners, and neither needs a government bailout to possess every minute of 99 Homes.