99 HOMES—-the systemic criminal (often interchangeably legal) calamity that kneecapped the American economy over the last decade had many players wagging its hydra-heads, and since the lies of successive administrations and presstitute media added smoke screens of confusion, airing has been left to rogue journalists and a handful of sallies from our dominant collective art form—the movies—to pierce the veil of fraud and fantasy and give us some idea of what the hell is going on. Few films about economic skulduggery translate into box-office wins, even when they’re buoyed by big names, as the scripts gab terminology of the sort that got millions bilked in the first place. Though well-reviewed, this trim, dagger-sharp venom expulsion from 2014 was lost in the wake of more expensive, better publicized, star-weighted allies like The Big Short and The Wolf Of Wall Street. It isn’t as technique-clever as the first or flash-sexy as the latter, but with bristling performances and ground-level blue-collar relevance it delivers a throat punch of righteous indignation.
“Don’t be soft. Do you think America give a flying rats ass about you or me? America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners. By rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.”
Wolves…or hyenas? While MBA hucksters casino bled the stock market, downscale hustlers like ‘Rick Carver’ (Michael Shannon) scoured the sheep flock by evicting people from their ‘underwater’ homes, buying them back for a pittance and gulping the profit margin on resale. With a little tweaking, its avarice masked by legality, this home invasion racket is as cruel a punishment/reward as ‘the law’ allows. Swooping through overpriced, overbuilt, over-mortgaged Orlando, Florida, circa 2008, Carver’s predator vision locks on the needs/weakness/usefulness of one of his desperate debtors (Andrew Garfield), an unemployed single dad. Pauper turns pupil, cash converts conscience, the greed gravy spreads across a kingdom no longer magic.
Superior scripting from Amer Naderi is shared by the director, Ramin Bahrani, who has a gift for pacing and displays unsentimental compassion in his casting down to the smallest role, according the unglamorous an inherent pride even as they’re being stripped of dignity.* As the values-conflicted protégé, Garfield is quite good, but the fire sale belongs to Shannon, who attacks the role with the zeal his character Rick Carver evinces for a hot real estate prospect. Shannon’s imposing visage gives him an edge of dark, unsettling magnetism (he reminds me of Lee Marvin): even when calm, he looks like he’s ready to explode, and he knows not to play a villain like a villain—Carver buys his line and is sincere about his actions. He’s an utter bastard precisely because, even though his remorseless logic favors the reptilian strands of his cortex, he’s still recognizably human, and the even-handed screenplay gives him arguments for his ruthlessness that carry conviction—and not a little sad truth—in that America’s insane real estate frenzy wasn’t the sole creation of Carvers or Wall Street wolves shorting big, it was a scam way too many ‘little guys’ willingly jumped on. The hassle of fine print aside, how gullible or reckless do you have to be to think you can skip into a mansion with zilch credit and not enough income to pay for the cable you watched for the c’mon ad that got you to sign your X? Attention, lemmings: cliff dead ahead. Keeping Carver’s at bay is a smart hedge, but Michael Shannon’s polished work is always a rock solid deal: he’s one of the most arresting actors on the market. Shake on it.
With Laura Dern (sure bet/default/ go-to-gal for modern distressed mom types), Tim Guinee (excellent, falling back on another rock of American real estate: “Come and Take It”), Noah Lomax, Clancy Brown (career-graduated in nastiness status from the jail togs of 1983s Bad Boys and 1994s prison guard uniform for The Shawshank Redemption to ‘respectable businessman’ $1,000 suits), Randy Austin, Cynthia Santiago, Manu Narayan, J.D. Evermore and Jeff Pope. Tense score is by Antony Partos and Matteo Zingales. The clear bright heat-bake of Florida is well captured by Bobby Bukowski’s camera, the merciless Gulf sun pounding the gullible, trusting, defeated, crushed victims into the disguised, eventually reclaiming swamp. Citizens as gator bait. 112 minutes.
* Bahrani, interviewed for the A.V. Club, on research for his story: “…so to start, I read about 400 or 500 articles, 20 books, got on the phone with a lot of people. But then I actually went down to Florida. I spent time with real-estate brokers. I was surprised they all carried guns. The same way people who’ve seen the film are surprised by the pace, or the mood, or the tone of it, how quick it is, I was surprised too. I didn’t expect violence down there. I didn’t expect so many mind-boggling scams. I didn’t expect that level of corruption. I didn’t expect the courts to be called “rocket dockets” because they’d decide your case in 60 seconds flat.”