There’s a scene in The Big Short where three of the protagonists fly to Florida to see for themselves just how quickly the housing market is approaching critical mass, and when they get there and cagily discuss the situation with two clueless douchebro real estate investors, they leave convinced that all the projections they’ve been privy to are actually on the level. It’s one of the best scenes in the movie, and in a weird way, it reminded me of movies where a team of biologists try to track down the source of a disease outbreak. Considering how the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market triggered a global meltdown, the disease analogy seems pretty apt.
In the movie 99 Homes, starring Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Michael Shannon (Midnight Special), and Laura Dern (Jurassic Park), the entire movie is set in Florida while the collapse is underway. People have lost their jobs, the market for new homes has dried up, people who owned homes, from modest sizes all the way up to mansions complete with pools, find themselves facing eviction with almost no recourse. Garfield, in what I consider to be a career performance, plays blue collar construction worker Dennis Nash, whose on-site new home construction job is retroactively ended; he, like the others on the crew are told not only is their job gone, they worked that whole week for no pay, and didn’t know it. A period of time goes by, then he’s confronted by two cops at his front door, and a soulless Rick Carver, played with predatory chill by the vastly underrated Michael Shannon. Nash, his mother (Dern), and his young son are given the courtesy of two minutes to grab as much personal stuff as they can before Carver’s crew closes the property off. Nash moves his family to a depressing, low rent motel he finds full of people in his situation. When he encounters Carver again, he’s forced to take a demeaning job from him for $50, but from this comes a relationship where he gradually becomes Carver’s right hand man. Nash, however, lacks Carver’s killer instinct (so well depicted in the movie’s opening scene), and the movie forces us to wonder, figuratively, what will become of Nash’s soul.
I say figuratively, but 99 Homes is very much a classic Faustian tale. A lot about Nash resembles the protagonist of the German folk tale, made famous by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe. With his down home, aw-shucks, blue collar work ethic, Nash is swayed by the lifestyle led by Carver, and when it becomes time for Nash to commit to a working relationship that goes beyond making simple repairs just to get by, Nash seizes the opportunity. Soon he’s involved in Carver’s scheme to remove appliances from foreclosed homes, then sell them back to the new property owners (banks and the government) to make them easier to offload. Nash doesn’t question the legality much when Carver hands him cheques for amounts it would have taken him weeks to make in the past. It’s only when Nash is placed on the frontline and assumes the role of handing people their marching orders, that Nash’s conscience begins to eat at him. By then it’s too late – he’s already sold his soul.
Of course, this is the part of the movie that’s delivered with a kind of blunt force. Nash’s internal struggles don’t exactly make compelling viewing, and so his deteriorating situation is externalized by specific conflicts within the plot – a minor character whom he has known in the past and who is now suffering the same fate Nash himself did in Act 1, and his own mother, who becomes the personification of his righteous conscience.
This is a good movie. I’m a big fan of Shannon, and while I can’t say the same of Garfield, he turns in a very creditable performance here. He’s the emotional core of the movie, and doesn’t disappoint. Even though Shannon’s role is cold and without mercy, Shannon plays it with a barely disguised, simmering rage. Together, they’re perfect foils for each other. Laura Dern’s role, however, felt very weird to me. IMDB informs me that she was around 47 at the time of the movie, so it’s perfectly reasonable that she could be could be Garfield’s mother – he was 30 then, but the combination of both actors was an uncomfortable mix for me. Dern is a fairly youthful, attractive woman, and they don’t appear that far apart in age. Sure, sure, there’s no playbook these days that such a part be reduced to a matronly hausfrau, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the casting was wrong. I should quickly add the there’s not even a hint of any kind of incestuous thing going on, so that isn’t the source of my feeling about the matchup.
Ostensibly, the movie is about the attachment we have to our homes, our castles, the sense of violation and fear that comes with any events that invade our space and separate us from it. The movie doesn’t hit us with this information, we already know it. Like The Big Short before it, 99 Homes is a movie that makes us angry, because it makes us face the harsh reality that almost all of us is only in control so far as our devotion to materialism allows us to be. Many of the people who lost their homes following the 2008 crash did so simply because they overbought, and were unprepared for the downturn in the economy. It’s easy to blame banks, government, anyone else for the problems we face in our lives, but many times the decisions we ourselves make damn us. 99 Homes is a cautionary tale about the loss of our own humanity when we pursue material gains, especially the deeper we have to dig in the dirt to attain them. It’s a movie that does its work well enough – at times I felt anger, outrage, sadness – but the movie also plays its villain card obviously. Everyone in the movie is a victim of predatory banking, except for Carver. He is the worst of all because he is the sole embodiment of the system. At no point does the story even attempt to let the blame be shared between the system and the victims. It’s more of a morality play in how it only plays good guys against bad guys, but as manipulative as the movie is, I also found it engrossing throughout.
The end of the movie felt a little like a cop out, though. As it unfolds, you can easily predict what’s coming next, but I would have preferred to see Nash understand the change within him, and reluctantly embrace it. His internalization has been building to a point where he can go either way in terms of the plot, but the writers choose the easy option, the one that most audience members would have chosen because they feel represented by Nash. In movie terms, the harder of both paths would have been a much better ending, as far as I’m concerned. I was a little disappointed, but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the movie as a whole. Definitely worth viewing.
© Andrew Hope 2017