THE VERY FIRST thing we see in 99 Homes is the brain-spattered wall of an Orlando bathroom where a man has committed suicide rather than be evicted from his home. The evictor, a Florida-twanged foreclosure vulture named Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), stands with his back to the body, yelling into his phone about how the messy crime scene complicates the process of preparing the house for resale. He's not wrong, but... yikes, buddy.
Ramin Bahrani isn't kidding around here. (You don't start your movie with a brain-spattered wall if you're kidding around.) The writer/director of warm character studies like 2005's Man Push Cart and 2008's Goodbye Solo starts his latest, a sort of morality play, on this dark note, and it leads to a well-executed long take that follows Carver out of the house and into his car, barking orders to his clean-up crew while defending his callous attitude to police. The year is 2010, and he's a real estate agent whose whole business is grabbing up foreclosed-upon homes.
Carver is the soulless counterpart to the film's emotion-driven protagonist, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), an underemployed construction worker and sensitive dad whom Carver evicts, along with his young son (Noah Lomax) and hair-stylist mother (Laura Dern), in an intense, heartbreaking scene that reverberates through the rest of the movie. The Nashes move into a motel populated by fellow evictees while Dennis looks for work—and guess who needs a motivated jack-of-all-trades who can fix up houses so they can be flipped?
A job is a job, and Dennis begins to be drawn into Carver's greed-driven operation. It includes plenty of actual law breaking, as well as the legal but unpleasant task of evicting people. ("First one's a bitch, but you get numb to it," Carver says, calling to mind what they tell new Mafiosi about carrying out hits.) Bahrani isn't judgmental, but Dennis is getting his hands dirtier than he should. The suspense lies in not knowing how far Dennis will go. We don't know if this will end in tragedy.
Bahrani's earnest, didactic style is occasionally strident, his points about the foreclosure crisis a little loud at times. But the simplicity of the formula makes the film read like a cautionary tale that a traveling troupe of actors might perform for medieval villagers. (Carver is the devil, Dennis is the good man being tested, and so forth.) Characters that aren't needed, like Dennis' father and his son's mother, are simply omitted from the story. Of course, this unsophisticated formula means accepting some plot contrivances (the motel Hooverville; the convenient way certain characters are connected) and a big, melodramatic finale that's juuuuust this side of ridiculous. But if you can go with it, it works.
Shannon is magnetic as the conniving, acid-tongued Carver, almost tipping over into cartoon villainy before giving us some perspective on the character. He makes the film funnier than you'd expect it to be, with Andrew Garfield's expressive tearfulness balancing it out the other way. It's a potent mix.
Bahrani made a name for himself in indie circles with the sedate films mentioned earlier—but between those and 99 Homes, he also made 2012's At Any Price, with Dennis Quaid as an Iowa farmer struggling to stay afloat in a rapidly changing world. 99 Homes continues in this vein, being driven more by story than by character, and focusing on the complexities of modern economics and the American dream. Bahrani is still evolving as a filmmaker, and this new approach—an attempt to be more mainstream, perhaps?—is an intriguing turn.