There’s a knock on your front door. You know what’s coming but don’t want to believe it. You lie to your family members, telling them not to worry, that you’ve got it all under control. You take a deep breath and open the door. A well-dressed man holds out his hand. He’s flanked by two sheriff’s deputies. You notice his gold watch, his perfectly tailored suit, and his tight smile. He introduces himself. His voice is even and steady, giving off only the slightest hint of emotion. He calmly tells you that your home has been foreclosed on. He gives you two minutes to pack up your essentials. He refers to this as a “courtesy” and doesn’t hesitate to remind you that you’re technically trespassing on your own property. Your protestations fall on deaf ears as he turns the matter over to the two deputies. He watches as you pack, not saying a word. After all of your belongings are strewn over what was once your front lawn, he casually saunters up to your porch, puffs on an e-cigarette, and surveys what now belongs to him.
Such is the life of Rick Carver, as played by Michael Shannon in writer-director Ramin Bahrani’s riveting new thriller, 99 Homes. Carver is a modern monster born out of many things: the American dream, the financial market crash, an impoverished upbringing, and good old fashioned greed. If those were the only things driving Carver, he would not be a very interesting character. He’d be a blunt object, a one note force of nature used to hammer home the many themes of the film. But Bahrani and Shannon want to dig deeper than that. Carver knows what he’s doing is immoral, he knows he’s one of the most hated men in his community, and he knows many of his actions are illegal. The thing is though, in Carver’s diseased mind, everything he does is justified. If he wasn’t kicking people out of their homes, somebody else would be. Is it really his fault that people can’t pay their mortgages? The law is the law after all. And he’ll be damned if he’s going to let little things like emotions get in the way of his rise to the top. As he tells Andrew Garfield’s Daniel Nash, “Only 1 in 100 is gonna get on that ark, son. Every other poor soul’s gonna drown.”
We first meet Carver in the home of a dead man. It’s the scene of an eviction gone bad. The homeowner couldn’t face reality so he put a gun to his head. Carver looks on disspasionatley before receiving a phone call. He has other business to attend to. The cops on the scene ask him what happened and it’s interesting to watch him not brush off their comments but instead acknowledge the horror of the situation and rebuke them for not contemplating the weight of what has just occurred. What’s done is done and he can’t change that. Not long after, he finds himself knocking on Daniel Nash’s door. Nash, a construction worker and contractor, has been struggling to support his mother (Laura Dern) and young son. He can’t make the payments on the house no matter how hard he works but the court doesn’t care. Neither does Carver. Nash and his family are homeless within minutes. This is displayed in an absolutely chilling scene that has more tension and suspense than most modern thrillers. Once he’s moved into his family into a motel, Nash realizes that Carver’s workers have stolen some of his tools. He confronts them angrily and Carver brushes off the altercation as if it was no more than a nuisance. When Nash begins to rail at him, Carver offers him a job. Though initially taken aback, there doesn’t seem to be work anywhere else so Nash is soon calling the man who ruined his life ‘boss’. And thus, a Faustian bargain begins.
Real estate law may not seem like the most compelling subject for a thriller but in Bahrani’s hands, it’s mesmerizing. He’s also careful to never become too heavy handed with his messages. This is not Crash. Yes, Bahrani is clearly angry. Yes, his movie pulses with topical points about government control and the plight of the middle class but this is not some obnoxious PSA on the insidious nature of the housing market. This is a real movie with real characters whom we identify with. The most preachy moment in the film comes in the form of a speech by Carver to Nash, where he explains why he does what he does. In a lesser actors hands, the speech might have come off as unrealistic or out of place. But Michael Shannon gives it the necessary weight and fills it with genuine belief. Carver is not some broad amalgamation of a corporate monster. He’s a genuine human being who fully believes that what he is doing with his life is the only sane course of action. He asks Nash, “You think evictions were what I wanted to do?” and points out that the state of the economy is what pushed him in this direction. He didn’t decide to kick people out of homes; he just went with the flow.
It’s also interesting to watch Nash so quickly adopt to Carver’s way of thinking. Garfield–a marvelous actor who has been bogged down by webs for the last few years–paints Nash as a man with morals, a man who stands up for his friends and for the little guy. But he’s got a mother and child to support and when a man with a gold watch hands him more money than he’s ever seen, how can he refuse it? Sure, he protests when Carver shows him the illegal sides of his business but then Carver asks him why he cares about screwing over the government. They screwed him over didn’t they? It’s time to return the favor. This is a smart move on Bahrani’s part because he understands that each and every person on the planet has felt screwed over by the government at some point in their life. Nash is no different. This makes us understand his actions even as we are repulsed by them.
And keep in mind, what Carver and Nash to do people is nothing short of repellant. Nash becomes more than just a worker to Carver. He becomes something of a protege. The scenes where Nash evicts people from their homes are absolutely harrowing. Bahrani reportedly watched several real life evictions and that gives many sequences in the film a horrifying sense of relevance. There’s the daughter who foolishly thinks that filming the eviction and posting it to Facebook will make a difference. There’s the man who insists his lawyer is on the other end of the phone with an easy solution. And then there’s the old man, a widower, who doesn’t understand what’s happening and has nowhere to go. These scenes ring so true and sting so hard that they will be tough for many a viewer to sit through. Good. Sometimes, in order to make a great film, you have to be hard on your audience.
The film wouldn’t work as well as it does if it weren’t for the performances. Garfield reminds us why he needs to be in movies like this instead of soulless blockbusters. Laura Dern, as usual, gives a complex, layered performance as the mother who doesn’t really want to know how her son is suddenly bringing home so much money. If there’s one criticism I have of the film, it’s that I wanted more of her. That’s not even a knock on the movie so much as a personal preference. I always want more of Laura Dern. Special credit must also be given to veteran character actor Tim Guinee (does anyone remember him from John Carpenter’s Vampires? He was the novice priest who becomes a badass? Anyone? No? No? Fine, I’ll move on) as one of the many homeowners whom Carver and Nash set their sights on. It’s a small role but an absolutely crucial one and he makes us feel so much for this poor man. The film’s climax hinges around him and without Guinee’s heartfelt performance, the last ten minutes wouldn’t be as emotional and suspenseful as they are.
At the center of it all though, is Shannon as an evil man with his own twisted set of morals. There’s a scene near the end where Carver and Nash decide to do something more immoral than anything else they’ve done. Nash is obviously horrified but watch Shannon closely and you’ll see that Carver is too. Trouble is, he’s given up on good and evil, right and wrong. He only sees obstacles in the way of his own survival. And can you blame him? He, more than anyone, knows what the economy can do to people. He doesn’t like it either but what is he supposed to do? Stand idly by and get swept up in the wreckage or rage through it like the shark that he is? You know the answer and part of you wishes you could do that yourself. Because the Daniel Nash’s of this world are going to get swept away. But the Rick Carver’s of this world? They’ll be with us till the end of time. Hell, they’ve been with us since the beginning.
99 Homes is currently playing in select theaters.