Dirty Closings: Tough, rawly acted "99 Homes" hits where we live

99 Homes (2015)
112 min., rated R.

Thrillingly urgent and plausible as a Faustian morality thriller, "99 Homes" is like a shakingly relevant horror film of today's economy and unfortunate housing crisis. The compelling drama in Iranian-American writer-director Ramin Bahrani's (2012's "At Any Price") socially conscious parable is already inherent, so everything that he builds toward hits the viewer like a ton of bricks instead of taking one out of the story with an air of contrivance. Tough-minded and powerfully vivid, the film grabs from the get-go with the arresting image of blood splattered on a bathroom wall from a common man who would rather be dead than be evicted from his home. Sadly, this is a devastating situation many families have experienced, but "99 Homes" illuminates without exploiting the picture of ordinary working-class Americans' pride getting thrown down the drain. If you can't beat the 1%, do you join them if you're offered the chance?

Orlando, Florida, jack-of-all-trades contractor Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) has struggled to support hairdresser mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and son Connor (Noah Lomax) with his income and keep up the mortgage payments on his childhood home, but the world is against him the day the bank sends him a foreclosure notice. Dennis goes to court, trying to fight his case, but the judge orders Dennis and family to vacate the premises. They have thirty days to file an appeal, but the next day, the home will belong to the bank. Real estate broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) and police escorts knock on the door to evict the Nash family, giving them only two minutes to pack up the essentials and then having everything else in their home dumped on the front lawn by Carver's clean-up crew. Temporarily moving Lynn and Connor to a sketchy neighborhood motel, where countless other evicted families have now lived for years, Dennis later confronts Carver and gets an unsavory job offer that still can't be passed up. Dennis needs the money, no matter where it gets it, and hides the specifics of his new construction job from his family. He gets more than he bargains for and compromises his conscience, stealing air conditioners and pool pumps and flipping foreclosed properties. Eventually, Dennis finds himself kicking families to the curb.

Set in 2010, two years after the financial crash, "99 Homes" hits close to home and it hits hard. On screen, the screenplay by director Ramin Bahrani and co-writer Amir Naderi evokes such an honest emotional response through the filmmaker's trust of his own riveting storytelling and the performances he wrings out of his first-rate actors. Instead of painting the evicted as the poor heroes and the evictors as the bad guys, the film is about a current climate where those thrown out on the street must cross the line between right and wrong to get back what's theirs and for opportunists, such as Rick Carver, to know how to beat the legal system. Dennis and his family's plight is so rife with pathos and, formerly an honest man doing honest work, Dennis finds himself way in over his head as he becomes owned by Carver. Every action Dennis takes is soon cloaked in gray; we question him but sympathize and understand his decisions that are spontaneous when emotions are concerned rather than logic.

Andrew Garfield is superb in a performance so emotionally open and stirring that it might be his best work so far in his still-rising career. As depicted by Garfield, Dennis' outpouring of anger is so palpably wrenching and impactful that his desperation feels genuinely earned. Volcanic ferocity is Michael Shannon's speciality, and here as the high-rolling Rick Carver, he is intensely frightening as a soulless, opportunistic shark who finds no emotion in real estate and has grown numb to evicting homeowners ("America doesn't bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners."). Intimidating and commanding, Shannon's Carver eventually brings Dennis into his immoral (and illegal) circle, complete with sharp suits, women and cigars, and almost makes it look attractive. Somehow, Shannon skirts around making Carver a caricatured heavy that stands for capitalism with a moment or two that give him a layered glimmer of perspective and legitimate points about the banks and the government. As usual, but not to be ignored even with limited screen time, Laura Dern gives it her all, expressing identifiable emotion and truth as Lynn, who can't even bring herself to leave a houseplant in the home where she raised her family. Finally, Tim Guinee is unshakable as a family man (his son is a friend of Denis' son Connor) whom Dennis most identifies with when he lands himself in the same situation as nearly everyone else.

Bravely concentrating on human frailty, the film stings with the unaffectedness of a documentary. When Dennis must prove his worth to Carver, he is forced to evict an elderly man without any of his mental faculties, even though the man has nowhere to go. Narrative features do not feature more uncommonly raw power than this. Even if the film makes the slight mistake of softening the resolution a bit, the consequences still ring true and the cumulative impact of Dennis selling his soul to save his family's home stays with you. Fully empathetic, aching and provocative, "99 Homes" is not the stuff of comfort at the movies, but it's one of the year's most potent films.

Grade: A -