Starring: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Noah Lomax, Tim Guinee
Rated R for Language Throughout including Some Sexual References, and for a Brief Violent Image
Andrew Garfield first came to my attention when I watched "Boy A" years ago. There, he played a reformed criminal struggling to start a new life. Apparently, I wasn't the only one taken with him, since that started opening doors in Hollywood. He got nominated for a Golden Globe for "The Social Network," although he was a little flat there, in my opinion. After playing Spidey twice, he's appeared in this dramatic thriller, "99 Homes." It contains his best performance.
Dennis Nash (Garfield) lives in a modest home with his mother Lynn (Dern) and son Connor (Lomax). He was born there and so was his son. So when he can't make ends meet and the threat of foreclosure looms over his head, he's very stressed out. Eventually, the police come to tell him to move out, and accompanying him is realtor Rick Carver (Shannon), who will sell back the house. After he realizes that a member of Rick's moving crew stole $500 dollars worth of tools (Dennis is a laborer), he goes to get them back and ends up working for none other than Rick himself. Because he is desperate and willing, Dennis quickly becomes Rick's right hand man. But the realtor is as sleazy as they come and Dennis finds himself participating in a number of horrible scams. He sees the resulting carnage first hand, but the money is too good and he needs his house back.
The plot sounds pure formula, and it is, but director Ramin Bahrani has camouflaged it effectively with well-rounded, believable characters and underplaying the melodrama. Where the film gets into trouble is the explanations of the scams. They don't make any sense, and for such a huge part of the plot, that's a big problem.
"99 Homes" is saved by the two lead performances. Andrew Garfield looks too preppy to be believable as a blue-collar joe, but his performance is so strong that it hardly matters. Watching the evolution of Dennis made me think of that classic Nietzche quote: "He that fights with monsters should look to himself that he does not become one." The difference here is that he isn't fighting against a monster, but alongside him. The axiom remains true nonetheless. His co-star, Michael Shannon, has built a career on playing twisted characters ("Premium Rush," "Man of Steel," and so on), is just as riveting. The economic reality has forced him to change from selling homes to evicting people, but the protective wall he puts between himself and other people has caused him to stop caring about the people he is hurting. Personal greed has become his mantra, and his cynical, "winner takes all" mentality has given him the personality of the corporate big shots who wrecked, and are continuing to wreck, our economy. It's a long shot, but both actors are deserving of Oscar nominations. Laura Dern and Noah Lomax provide excellent support, but Tim Guinee is uneven in the crucial role of Dennis's neighbor. When he's low-key, he's heartbreaking, but during his big scene he can't reach the emotions necessary and comes across as wooden.
I haven't seen Ramin Behrani's previous films, but they all received four-star reviews from the late great Roger Ebert. This isn't a perfect film, but it shows that Behrani is a gifted filmmaker. I'll definitely check out his earlier films, and am excited to see what he does next.