“Don’t get emotional about real estate,” demands Rick Carver, a gun-toting real estate broker played by Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon, of his young protégé, Dennis Nash, played by Andrew Garfield, early on in the newly released film “99 Homes.”
Spoiler: Everyone gets emotional.
With an opening scene featuring a bloody death — a view into the literal cutthroat world of Florida real estate amidst the late 2000’s downturn — it’s no surprise that “99 Homes,” a thriller directed by Ramin Bahrani, is a very evocative film. Although Carver, a shrewd and diabolical real estate magnate making a figurative killing from repossessing and then flipping homes at lightning speed for big banks and the government’s Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac post-bubble bust, nonchalantly shrugs it off as merely the cost of doing business.
Set in Central Florida — foreclosures were prevalent throughout the whole state during the late 2000s — Carver continues to take care of business by evicting single dad and unemployed contractor, Dennis Nash, played by Golden Globe nominee Andrew Garfield; his young son; and his mother, played by Academy Award nominee Laura Dern, from their Orlando home.
After appearing in court and being told his eviction is imminent, Nash believed he could somehow appeal and still figure out a way to keep his family’s home. Taken completely by surprise, the police come calling along with Carver alerting him he has just a few minutes to gather up his most important belongings and vacate. Despite protests, their stuff ends up on their lawn and they are forced to relocate to a seedy motel – a makeshift community of foreclosure refugees.
After seeking out Carver to confront him about his unfair eviction, when the desperate Nash is offered a job from his nemesis, he takes it, ultimately making a deal with the devil. Nash quickly learns the not-so-above-board-techniques Carver and his ilk employ. From stealing appliances from his foreclosed properties only to sell them back from ill-gotten profit, to employing a shady “Keys for Cash” program in the hopes that those getting booted from homes will leave their spaces tidy prior to hitting the streets, Nash must now perform the same sketchy eviction tactics that were used on him. The same gut-wrenching scenario plays out over and over the area playing on our heart strings. No one is spared — elderly, children, and even pets.
“When Dennis Nash starts working for Rick Carver, initially it’s only for money — and Dennis believes he’s truly doing honest work,” Ramin Bahrani said in a statement. “But then the deceptions begin when he lies to his family about working for Carver, and when he’s suddenly asked to evict other families, he has a lot to weigh. As Rick says to him, ‘you did honest, hard work building homes your whole life, and what did it get you but me knocking on your door to evict you?’ That’s a question a lot of people have been asking.”
As he gets a taste of the good life — triumphantly buying back his family’s property — Nash straddles two worlds. The juxtaposition between the Florida’s real estate porn of the rich, and its dismal motel shanties the have-nots are forced to reside in is startling.
Worlds collide dangerously when one of the homeowners Nash evicted checks into the same motel Nash and his family have been holed up in while waiting to be able to resume ownership of their property. The confrontation gets ugly as Nash’s secret life and alliance with the devil becomes exposed. As a result he buys a far more luxe property so they can move in immediately, morphing momentarily from hero to villain. While he has gained valuable property, he may lose something more valuable: his family.
Some of the most mindful social commentary the movie imparts is offered directly from the orally fixated — Carver is rarely seen without something in his mouth — antagonist himself, when Carver espouses, “Who in their right mind wouldn’t rather put people in a home, instead of dragging them out of it?” He quickly answers his own question when given the opportunity to acquire and flip 100 more homes and is willing to get the gig by any means necessary, illegal or not, by demanding Nash do his illicit dirty work. Carver’s rationale?: “America doesn’t bail out the losers; America was built on bailing out the winners.”
Things reach a boiling point when Nash is confronted with his deceptive deeds and faced with a decision: Tell the truth and kill the cash cow, or go with the flow and live with the burden of knowing he has destroyed lives.
“99 Homes” offers a compelling glimpse into the tragic post-bubble world, highlighting the complex perfect storm of dysfunction not only throughout Florida, but our nation, faced — people borrowed above their means, becoming overleveraged; banks who offered such lax financing then turned around and offered no option but to create a class of homeless; and developers and flippers employing dishonest tactics reaping the benefits.
What makes this thriller even more chilling is the fear that history may someday repeat itself.