99 Homes is a film about home repossession, a subject matter which has no right to be as gripping and morally intricate as this. Whilst many post-financial crash dramas have struggled to resonate (Arbitrage, anybody?), 99 Homes is tight and sharp edged. It is refreshingly undidactic, thanks to some clinical characterisation from leads Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon.
Garfield’s a real talent, but recently he’s only utilised his perpetual youth in mediocre Spider-Man movies since his big breakout role as Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network. Here he plays Dennis, a single father, living with his son and mother and trying to keep possession of his family home despite financial strain caused by the difficulties of finding work in the construction industry. Despite his best efforts in the courts, real estate broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) ends up at his door with notices, flanked by a pair of cops and a team of clearout lackies.
Shannon’s cold eyes and clinical efficiency is utilised remarkably. “2 minutes”, he affords Dennis. “You have 2 minutes. And I’m giving it to you out of a courtesy”. It’s one of the standout scenes this year, even if the rest of the film had been disappointing, it would be worth seeing just for this. The confusion, realisation and horror are so painfully real. The camera doesn’t blink, panning through this heartbreaking reality. The panic is completely immersive, the realities of a failed economic system spelled out not through dialogue but through tension and characterisation.
With all their worldly possessions humiliatingly stacked up on the curb-side, the family have no option but to relocate into a scummy motel populated by other economic losers in identical situations. His tools are his only way out of this awful situation and when he discovers they are missing, he goes to confront Carver’s lackies whom he suspects stole them in the clearance. It’s at this point, the cold, calculated Carver sees a further opportunity of exploitation, offering Dennis good money for a good day’s work, coercing him into applying his construction skills for his business, the very firm that took everything from him.
Carver’s character is really well written, a tempting snake certainly, but the circumstances that made him this monster and his ability to understand to world the way that it works adds to his complexity without making him sympathetic. Nearer the end of the film, a couple plot contrivances begin to seep through, for example it’s hard to imagine Carver giving Dennis one particular job given the risk and his emotional investment. But these are small details in what is a fascinating and in some ways clinical account of people trying to make the best of circumstances. It avoids sentimental traps whilst also being a strong story about people trapped in moral predicaments. A welcome return for Garfield and for Shannon it’s another terrorising turn from the most intense man in Hollywood.
Review by David Rank
99 Homes is out now in the UK. Rating 15 (UK). Running time 112 mins.