During America's 2008 housing crisis, ruthless real estate broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) is making massive profits by repossessing homes. When unemployed tradesman Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is evicted along with his mother (Laura Dern) and his young son, he is a desperate man who would do anything for work. By a twist of fate, he's offered a job by Carver, the very man who evicted him.  

Editor's note: We reviewed 99 Homes at the 2015 Sydney Film Festival.  SBS has subsequently entered a deal to co-distribute the movie in Australian cinemas, in partnership with Madman Films. 

A credit crunch deal with the Devil.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: It’s a frighteningly, well-oiled machine. Am I talking about Ramin Bahrani’s film 99 Homes? No, actually I was thinking of the way banks and property developments co-operate to squeeze the working poor and the lower middle class out of their hard-earned cash. But it applies to Bahrani’s film too. Well-constructed, courageous and savvy, 99 Homes is a warning to people who think the financial framework they set up during boom times, will serve them equally well during the inevitable bust.

When Bahrani’s film starts, Dennis (Andrew Garfield) is on a team of tradies, who find out their boss has been stiffed by a sub-contractor. As a consequence, Dennis has just worked the past two weeks for nothing. Mortgage repayments get missed and with a predatory swiftness, a real estate agent named Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) is evicting Dennis, his young boy and his mum (Laura Dern) and has legally taken possession (aided by an indifferent court system and local police) of what was once Dennis’s security. Forced to live in a motel, which is occupied by people similarly outmanoeuvred by the system, entrapped in low fee mortgages and a lack of support from the United States Social Security system, Dennis decides to fight back. The irony is that in standing up for himself, Dennis steps into a Faustian pact that means that he is working for the very man who dispossessed him of his home.

Courtesy of Shannon’s sulphuric performance that could have come from one of Billy Wilder’s darker films, Carver tutors Dennis – and the audience – on how the system works, punctuating each point with brutal aphorisms that are too jagged to amuse despite them being Carver’s idea of a bitter joke. One line so appalled the woman seated behind me that her exhalation of breath ruffled my hair. That said, despite his poisonous tone, Carver’s best wisecrack, derived from a Biblical story is a corker (I won’t spoil it for you) and brought the house down at the State Theatre. With each lesson, Dennis finds himself enmeshed deeper in the capitalist quagmire and director Bahrani sets the stage for the tradie’s day of reckoning.

If 99 Homes has a weak-point, it could be the speech made by Carver, revealing he got into the real estate game and what created his ruthless outlook on life. Great acting, but also great writing, gives Carver a humanity that seemed beyond the real estate agent character until that time. 

Much has been made of the endorsement Bahrani received from the influential film critic Roger Ebert, as “the director of the decade”. While I wouldn’t want to argue with a dead film critic (though it’s easier than arguing with live ones), it’s worth pointing out that one of Bahrani’s co-writers on 99 Homes is the veteran Iranian director Amir Naderi (best known for his 1984 movie The Runner). Since being based in the United States since 1993, Naderi has highlighted need and greed in the American indie movement in films such as Manhattan By Numbers (1993) and Vegas: Based on a True Story (2008). Certainly, Bahrani has an assured eye and a strong way with narrative but my guess is that Naderi’s influence on 99 Homes should not be under-estimated.  At the very least the combination of their talents is a match made in movie heaven.

And while, the alleged flaw in the script reveals a side of Carver’s personality that encourages understanding, if not compassion, the real estate agent is also shown to be a link in the chain that goes higher to government manipulating property developers (Barangaroo, anyone?). These people are so far removed from the plight of Dennis and people like him that they are even less likely to give a damn than Carver. The script offers insight into Carver, but it never lets the 1 percent off the hook. There would have been a good case for making this the opening night film at the Sydney Film Festival. 99 Homes would have given State politicians and all those first-nighters who speculate in Sydney real estate, something to think about.


Watch '99 Homes'

Monday 20 July, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)

USA, 2014
Genre: Drama
Language: English
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Starring: Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern, David Maldonado
What's it about?
After his family is evicted from their home, proud and desperate construction worker Dennis Nash (Garfield) tries to win his home back by striking a deal with the devil and working for Rick Carver (Shannon), the corrupt real estate broker who evicted him. From director Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo).

'99 Homes' is perfect viewing if you're mad at the banks

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