99 Homes is a great movie and there's probably going to be 99 people out of 100 who'll feel the same (the title, a nod to the number made famous by Occupy). More than likely these folks have had problems paying their mortgage or pulled out hair trying to get a loan modification. They may be among the millions who've suffered through a foreclosure or know someone who has. They may be part of a sizable "silent majority" - financially underwater homeowners - who live day to day in nail biting desperation waiting for the eviction Sword of Damocles to drop and bring the dreaded knock on the door.
A knock on the door is what kicks off the action in Ramin Bahrani's gut-wrenching body-slam of a movie, 99 Homes.
What Goodfellas did for the mob 99 Homes will do for foreclosure (although some may find little difference between the two).
Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a laid off Florida construction worker, responds to the knock and finds himself confronted by a smarmy real estate broker, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), leading a phalanx of Sheriffs who in gestapo-like fashion clear the premises of Nash, his young son (Noah Lomax); his mother (Laura Dern) and all their collective possessions.
It's Florida, 2010, and the place is ground zero for a tidal wave of foreclosures that are tearing up communities throughout the state and if you're an impacted homeowner Florida ain't the place to be. The courts are so clogged with cases that special "rocket dockets" are put in place. They're rocket-like in how quickly judges decide to evict and no matter how vociferously the homeowner pleads, panders or shouts self-righteously from a high horse they'll usually be out on their arse in short order, care of the bank.
Bahrani who co-wrote the script with Amir Naderi plumbs cinema history well for inspiration and there's a Grapes of Wrath texture to scenes of the Nash family piling what they can into the family car seeking some place to temporarily camp. What they find is a cheap motel catering to victims in similar straights, one of many that line Florida's route 142; ironically a road that leads to Disney World. These are America's own refugee camps full of families trying to maintain some modicum of dignity while dealing with everyday problems like sending their kids off to school (60 Minutes did a great piece on foreclosure's impact on children)
99 Homes is spot-on in its depiction of the toxic fallout from the 2008 apocalypse and the human carnage it created. While homeowners were hung out to dry Treasury tuned up the Mega-Banks with B-12 style injections of cash. It's The Greatest Story Never Told and despite my involvement in an on-going documentary, Foreclosure Diaries, and writing/blogging on the issue for publications like American Banker I've been pained by the mainstream media's inattention to this shameless on-going scandal.
Chris Wyatt is a former Litton Loan Servicing executive turned whistleblower and he knows what homeowners are up against. They face a well-organized, well-oiled and well-funded enterprise I refer to as Foreclosure Inc, It's a matrix of interconnected companies that profit handsomely from homeowner misery and they run the gamut from default mortgage servicers, legal "foreclosure mills" to so called property preservation specialists. They even have one of their own - David Trott a/k/a "Foreclosure King" of Michigan - sitting in Congress.
Rick Carver is the dark face of this foreclosure business; adept at bundling seized properties known as REO's (Real Estate Owned) and selling them off to greed fueled investors. He's got more work than he can handle and when Nash, desperate for any job, comes begging Carver takes him on. He's first employed to do some house fix-ups but then graduates to becoming Carver's surrogate, knocking on homeowner's doors prepping them for eviction. The victim has now become victimizer and the taste of cash seduces Nash into going full-Judas. He also harbors the dream -- encouraged by Carver -- of making enough dough to buy back his home.
Poignancy is not at a premium in this flic. In one montage harassed homeowners - Latinos, African Americans, among them -- are shown accepting "cash for keys," the banker's scam to give a few bucks to asset deprived folks in exchange for the premises. In one particularly disturbing scene Nash shows up at the home of an elderly, confused man, alone, who's told he has to leave. Dazed, he protests, saying he obtained a 'reverse mortgage' which he thought would keep him safe. No, Nash tells him, the bank has obtained an eviction order. He's wheeled out to the curb to face an uncertain future. Definitely a Kleenex moment.
Much of this film sadly resonates with what I've seen and my company, Pacific Street Films, has documented. In 2007 we covered the forcible/ugly eviction of a Maryville, Tennessee couple, Bob and Stacy Schmidt. Eight years later the Schmidts', having been run through the foreclosure wringer, are still trying to get their home back. Minority communities in towns like Cleveland have been especially hard hit and for these victims - with little legal resources - there was no fight to wage.
Crisis of conscience collides with misgivings about involvement in some of shadier schemes and scams to defraud the government and when Nash confronts his boss the response is delivered in true 1% style.
America doesn't bail out the losers; America was built by bailing out winners...
It's the ethos that underscored Treasury's TARP program; the financial life preserver thrown to a drowning set of Mega-Banks during the 2008 meltdown. The "losers" in this equation were the homeowners and if you need any sort of reinforcement for this mind-set try listening to CNBC's Rick Santelli cheerleading a bunch of frat-boy stock traders or Larry Kudlow discussing foreclosure with Bank of America's head honcho, Brian Moynihan.
There's no happy ending to 99 Homes - the foreclosure crisis is still very much alive - but the film delivers an inspirational "fight back" message that should provide encouragement to individuals like Carlos Marroquin, a mailman by trade and a foreclosure victim himself. He's been a tireless organizer in Los Angeles for Occupy Fights Foreclosure, fighting on behalf of minority homeowners who have fallen prey to the predatory lending practices of the Mega-Banks.
Emblematic of Tom Joad's iconic soliloquy at the end of Grapes of Wrath, 99 Homes ends with a transformed, resurrected Nash and while he doesn't give a speech you know that he's now on the side of the angels.
Joel Sucher is a writer/filmmaker with Pacific Street Films and has contributed his perspective on foreclosure to publications that include American Banker, In These Times and Huffington Post. He's currently working on a dramatic script based on the 2010 Senate hearings into the role of Goldman Sachs in precipitating the housing crisis.