Andrew Garfield in 99 Homes (Broad Green Pictures)

Andrew Garfield in 99 Homes (Broad Green Pictures)

yellowstar This masterful balancing act of docudrama and morality tragedy is set in 2010, but we aren’t given that date until more than halfway through. It doesn’t matter, as the events of the film—taking place in Orlando, Florida—could be taking place right now. This goes to show how in the moment and forceful Ramin Bahrani’s fifth feature film is: it feels this world so deeply, in large part because many in the ensemble are not professional actors.

The film kicks off when Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a contractor and construction worker, can’t pay his mortgage bills on time. He bought his modest ranch house, which he shares with his son, Connor (Noah Lomax), and mother, Lynn (Laura Dern), in 2006 when new mortgage loans were all too easy to obtain. Despite his pleas to the judge, he’s given 30 days to appeal or else that’s it. Yet the next day, he’s already being evicted by a man named Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), representing a real estate agency that has taken over the loan in conjunction with the bank.

The scene where Dennis and his family are forcibly expelled from their home is among the most powerful in recent film. The sheriff deputies forcing them out have been through this so many times that it’s routine, not that the emotions don’t run any less high or the orders given with any less force. Garfield and Dern play this scene with just the right pitch of bewilderment. Meanwhile, Carver prowls around with his e-cigarette, giving just the barest minimum of sympathy, if that. After all, he’s got other evictions to get to.

Nash needs money to get back his house. (Not so oddly enough, he and his family now live in a nearby motel.) By chance, he tags along with Carver on a cleaning job at a foreclosed home, and something about this young man interests Carver: If he can do construction and other manual labor, he can work on the houses being foreclosed on or that have been abandoned. The opportunity for more money makes Nash curious, so an arrangement is made for him to, first, make a “cash for keys” take it or leave it offer to those in danger of eviction (which are, as we see in a montage, many) and then carry out the evictions. Significantly, he doesn’t reveal to his family how he now has extra money.

Why does Nash do this? The goal, to buy back his house, holds him so much in a grip that it leads him to lose his way, especially in the third act as things unravel further as bigger deals start coming up for Carver (a lot of them probably illegal). Morally speaking, one might say Nash has made a deal with the devil, but is Carver that? In another film he’d be the dutiful pupil of, say, Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. He’s the guy who can sell you on anything, despite, or actually because of, Shannon’s imposing presence.

But as Carver explains—in a monologue that Shannon gets to chew on with full dramatic relish—it’s all about the times we’re living in. He used to be just a regular old broker, and then the bubble burst. (Ironically, he says he made more during the financial crisis than before it.) Is he the villain? In a manner of speaking, yes; he sets the protagonist on a path of turmoil, for himself and his family. But Carver’s so smart a mover-and-shaker money-grubber that he has a certain allure like Denzel Washington in Training Day.

As in Bahrani’s previous films, such as Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and to a lesser extent Goodbye Solo (one of the unsung masterpieces of the past 10 years), he is deeply interested in what’s causing Americans to be saddled with a constant and terrifying burden. A lot of it is financial, and here he populates his film with people who the audience would see every day. I never felt I was seeing actors in the scenes when homeowners receive foreclosure and/or eviction notices. This world feels so alive and present that Bahrani takes another step further from Chop Shop, which had an all non-professional cast, into another form of neorealism, with big A-list stars while addressing a larger, potent, and vital subject.

In short, this is a major work of drama, acted with fire and conviction all around. It’s among Garfield’s best work, and Dern’s very good, too, though not in the film that much. The movie looks at a place and time that in other hands could have been bogged down in preaching to the audience, but here the simple act of a character doing something he knows is wrong, over and over again, is totally absorbing.

Edited and Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Produced by Bahrani, Ashok Amritraj, Kevin Turen, and Justin Nappi;
Written by Bahrani and Amir Naderi, based on a story by Bahareh Azimi
Released by Broad Green Pictures
USA. 112 min. Rated R
With Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern, and Noah Lomax