CHICAGO – Having a mortgage in this day and age is is an invitation to be fleeced. The idea is for a bank to simply have someone who is desperate for the American Dream or the picket fence, to be beholden to them forever. And if that person loses their job or is in a circumstance where they can no longer pay, it’s foreclosure time. 99 Homes exposes this con game in a narrative film, and leaves no slime behind as the stones are overturned. Michael Shannon gives a harsh and searing performance as the main player in the housing game.
There is a line in the film, expressing that houses are merely boxes, and cynically that is true. If you are below the pay line or living paycheck to paycheck, a home with a mortgage may represent the only hope that you cling to, an “ownership” in some sort of looking glass reality. The film is set in Florida, a couple years after the economic meltdown, where there were daily foreclosures. The executioners around these foreclosures – since the banks don’t want to deal with it – are the sharks that snap up the property, and at times double bill the government for “rescuing” the property. The truth of all this is in the film, and that reality is harsh, and a downer. The tide has turned for the American middle class, and their rights are gone in the shell game of banks, “entrepreneurs” and financial games.
Dennis (Andrew Garfield) is a construction worker whose jobs have dried up, post the economic meltdown of 2008. Unable to pay the mortgage, his family house is foreclosed upon by Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a “representative” who essentially floats the property or flips it. Dennis, his mother (Laura Dern) and young son are embarrassingly forced onto the street by law enforcement.
Moving into a temporary motel – with other victims of foreclosure – Dennis seeks out Rick to plead his case. While doing so, he actually gets a job with the speculator and wins his oily trust. Dennis becomes part of the con, and learns to take advantage of government handouts and duplicity in foreclosure. Soon he is amassing a nest egg, and actually moves his family to a bigger home. But the hypocrisy starts to wear on him, almost to the breaking point.
This is a dance-with-the-devil film, but the bull headed character that Michael Shannon portrays has a survivalist mentality, and has learned in an ice cold way that it’s all business. We also learn that he just a cog in a massive new financial scheme, where corporations are formed to buy foreclosed homes, and thousands of former “American Dream” residences are like cards on a poker table, waiting for the right moment to flip or sell. Shannon does portray the character in-depth, complete with no real redeeming grace.
Andrew Garfield’s character Dennis is the innocent in this realm, and his desperation is so well established that it was no wonder he took up with Rick. His change of direction was interesting up to a point. The film made him a moral center, but the standard of his breaking point rang hollow, primarily because the film is so cynical about housing that a person paying a mortgage seems like a sucker. His come-to-religion moment doesn’t ring with the rest of the film, and the “nice” people are like the the old saying, they “finish last.”
The most eye-opening part of the film was the corporations around the foreclosure mess, eyeing flyover areas of America for easy ownership of neighborhoods that are affected. Since the film was set in 2010, five years later the result of this type of ownership game is most likely a bonanza, as property values have stabilized (and in some areas, gone up) since the crash. For some moneymen, it’s almost like a Great Recession is an opportunity to score, rather than a circumstance to be fixed, the very definition of Economic Darwinism.
This is as much an education as a film. If there is any takeaway, it’s the lesson that any debt owed to any institutions (mortgage, student loans, etc.) is a never-ending cycle of payments, with a rug ready to be pulled on the collector side. But life goes on, and new marriages, the opportunity to go to college and providing for a family is blind to debt, until it isn’t.
So the new American Dream, according to 99 Homes, is to rise above the banks, sharks and dealers looking to make us slaves to financial circumstances. To realize this young is to probably learn one of the most important lessons in life, and to realize it too late means a possibility of homelessness.
Broad Green Pictures presents 99 Homes, now in limited release and Video on Demand. See local listings theaters and show times, plus digital download services. Featuring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon. Laura Dern and Tim Guinee. Written and directed by Ramin Bahrani. Rated “R”