REVIEW: American dreams demolished in Bahrani’s riveting ‘99 Homes’

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How to make it in America? Sell out, buy in, whatever you want to call it — in writer-director Ramin Bahrani’s housing crisis drama “99 Homes,” there’s a blunt message at work: In this country, you either go with the Darwinian flow, or you drown.

This often intense tale of a builder (Andrew Garfield) who is evicted and ends up working for the man from the bank (Michael Shannon) suffers a bit considering how far we’ve come since the 2008 housing crisis, but its laser focus on the gimmicks and dirty tricks used to push so many from their homes remains sharp.

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99 Homes

Most viewers will rightfully be drawn to the film by the promise of Shannon’s nihilistic take on Rick Carver, a win-at-all-costs real-estate broker, but the real core of the film is Garfield and his Faustian deal to work for the forces that pushed his family to the curb.

Dennis Nash (Garfield) not only is struggling to pay the bills for his mother (Laura Dern) and son (Noah Lomax) after his construction gigs dry up, but misinformation from different departments of his mortgage bank leads to his strategic default becoming a painfully unexpected life lived out of a motel room.

Dennis, wanting more than anything to win back his home, ingratiates himself with Carver, using every cent he earns — done so by helping the bank foreclose on others just like him — to get back into his home.

Bahrani paints the county sheriff’s deputies tasked with aiding in the evictions act as mercenaries for Carver and his crews of movers. So, too, do the hearing rooms for the foreclosures seem like little more than kangaroo courts doing the bidding of the bankers. Shannon’s Carver serves as a stand-in for the 1-percenters that have rigged this system, even though Carver himself — despite his spacious mansion and mega-million-dollar deals — is himself just a cog, just one who’s self-assured that being on the winning side is the only way to survive.

Most viewers will rightfully be drawn to the film by the promise of Shannon’s nihilistic take on Rick Carver, a win-at-all-costs real-estate broker, but the real core of the film is Garfield and his Faustian deal to work for the forces that pushed his family to the curb.

Garfield manages to handle the transitions of Dennis starting as a desperate yet undefeated man to a seemingly happier yet morally compromised part of a scheme that, once discovered by his mother, cripples the affections of the few people he had worked to lift out of the motel life.

Shannon, up against the display of inner turmoil that Garfield gives, almost feels tethered up. He’s built an amazing career thus far on loud, unhinged men, and “99 Homes” utilizes his potential energy to build tension rather than letting Carver be yet another in a line of bombastic, terrifying Shannon performances. Less most certainly is more here.

In much the same way, the heart-pounding finale to “99 Homes” (without spoiling too much) recognizes that in positioning Dennis to answer for his deal with the devil and the wrongs he’s abetted, a big bang is much better served as a beginning, not an end.

“99 Homes” is rated R. Running time: One hour, 52 minutes. Three and a half stars out of five.