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"99 HOMES"
(2015) (Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon) (R)

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Drama: A desperate single father who has just lost his home goes to work for the unscrupulous man who engineered his foreclosure.
Dennis Nash (ANDREW GARFIELD) is a young single man living in 2010 Orlando with his young son, Connor (NOAH LOMAX), and widowed mother, Lynn (LAURA DERN). He makes his living in home construction, but the Great Recession has caused the mid-2000s housing boom to go bust. With little work to be had, he falls behind on his home-loan payments and is foreclosed on. A ruthless local property investor named Rick Carver (MICHAEL SHANNON) buys his property for pennies on the dollar.

Down on his luck, Dennis is surprised when Carver offers him a job making repairs on vacant homes that he has purchased and hopes to flip for profit. He eventually cuts him in on a scheme to steal HVAC units, swimming pool pumps, and more belonging to the houses he already bought out of foreclosure, and sell those household items back to the federal government for profit. Dennis is slowly seduced into Carver's lifestyle and begins to dream of buying an even bigger McMansion and give his son and mom all the advantages of wealth.

But Dennis keeps crossing paths with Frank Green (TIM GUINEE), a similarly down-on-his-luck family man who wants only to stay in his family house that's on the verge of foreclosure. Frank gets a good lawyer and appears close to winning a court case that would scuttle Dennis and Carver's plan for a bulk purchase of homes in Green's desirable neighborhood and surrounding area. Dennis must choose between being part of a scheme to use a forged document to defeat Frank or side against the man who has made him wealthy.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
I've always maintained that the true villains in haunted house movies are NOT the demons and ghosts that stalk their halls, basements, and closets. It's the greedy real estate agents who sold the characters those homes! They don't get much scarier than Michael Shannon's Rick Carver. In "99 Homes," the crackling new drama from director Ramin Bahrani, Carver is a former Realtor who recognized opportunity in the property boom that went bust in the late 2000s and profited handsomely off people's misery. He's like the Gordon Gekko of Orlando metro area real estate, and he seduces his own young ward -- a single father named Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) he recently evicted, who wants to learn the ways of the Sith ... er, home flipping so he can make a bundle, too. Dennis knows that Carver is basically pure concentrated evil in a sharp leisure suit. But he wants to been seen as a hero in his young son's eyes and get the family house back ... and more

It's a good set-up for a movie, and Bahrani knows how to play on his audience's sympathies and sense of moral outrage. And I liked that he correctly saved some of the harsh light for the actual "victims" of the bust who either got greedy themselves and borrowed against their homes for frivolous things like new sun room additions or fancy, schmancy kitchen upgrades or were people who had no business qualifying for a mortgage in the first place without sufficient down payments or good credit. Still, the scenes where Carver and Nash evict families who just fell behind on their payments because of job loss or health issues or the one senior citizen living alone with obvious signs of mental deterioration who has literally nowhere to go are hard, hard, hard to watch.

While Dennis fights to maintain some semblance of a conscience as his moral compass starts skipping all over the place, Carver remains absolutely cold-blooded. Both men had fathers who died having been crushed by overwork, bad decisions, and various vices and addictions. Carver, though, used his dad's failure as his de facto "As God as my witness, I'll never be hungry again" battle cry to be as ruthless in business as possible. When we first meet him, he is in the foreclosed home of a husband and father who has just killed himself. In Carver's eyes, you can see him calculating how much it's going to cost to get the blood splatters off the walls so he can flip the house, all the while barking orders into his cell phone as he works on his next foreclosure.

Shannon is terrific in the role. He definitely gives Carver a point of view. A lot of what he says in the film IS technically correct and a lot of his business deals are completely legal. Garfield, meanwhile, provides a good counterpoint for him to play off of, and the "Spider-Man" actor is really effective as a blue-collar man who justifies a lot of the wrong he does as fighting for his family.

Unfortunately, the longer the film goes on, the more I noticed the manipulations of its screenplay. The first half of the movie is dynamite, playing like a Victor Nunez/John Sayles character study crossed with an old-school Oliver Stone moral thriller. But when the plot started turning Carver into a guy who has no problem swindling the federal government or forging official court documents while putting together multimillion-dollar real estate deals, I lost some of my admiration. I half-expected Carver to go back to his office and pray to a secret shrine of J.R. Ewing.

Most of the real-life guys like Carver really didn't do anything illegal. They were evil, greedy sons-of-you-know-whats. But they knew (and still know) the limits of the law. I think "99 Homes" would have been a better film had it kept the dynamic of Dennis making more and more money and Carver goading him to be even more ruthless and seeing how far he would go down. Mainstream audiences will appreciate some of the thriller aspects of the film's final act. And the climax is set up well with this one desperate husband and father (Tim Guinee) appearing and reappearing throughout, vowing to fight guys like Carver and Dennis and not realizing the system is rigged against him.

Dennis also makes a couple of illogical choices that are less due to character and more having to do with keeping the plot moving along. For instance, soon after his eviction, he moves his family into a ratty motel with monthly rates in which half the occupants are other people who have similarly lost their homes. Now, the second he starts evicting people for Carver, I thought to myself, "OK, you better move out of that motel. One of these victims is bound to show up there." But no! Even after he starts earning checks of $3,200 and $7,000 a pop, Dennis keeps his son and mother and himself there. The screenplay uses the excuse that Dennis can't get back in his family home for eight weeks due to the legal constraints of the foreclosure. But if I'm pulling in checks like that on a regular basis, I'm at the very least moving out of that fleabag motor lodge and into the nearest Four Seasons. Room service and spa massages, bay-bee!

All in all, though, "99 Homes" is a solid movie with two terrific lead performances. And the scenes of McMansions and cookie-cutter ranchers alike sitting vacant with the owners' entire belongings literally kicked to the curb will haunt you more than any Gothic estate and its resident ghouls and creaky floorboards. These are the real haunted houses of this century. I give this a 6.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)

Reviewed October 5, 2015 / Posted October 9, 2015

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