It's painful to watch. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is evicted from his home in the opening scenes of "99 Homes." The sheriffs knock so loudly at the front door that it is clear that it is no longer his house.
When he answers, they serve the eviction notice, running over his meaningless excuses with the force of law that was written for those who don't live from paycheck to paycheck. Right behind the sheriffs are real estate operative Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) and his cold hearted close out crew, cutting utilities and wrenching out appliances. Personal belongings are pulled. The intimate artifacts of daily life are stacked and strewn across the front yard, the internal organs of a family bleeding out of the wound of poverty.
Nash has no job to pay his mortgage. He has nowhere to go but a seedy motel full of displaced evictees and the hardcore, angry poor. His mother Lynn (Laura Dern) is in shock, losing her home from which she has been able to run a small beauty shop. Nash's young son Connor (Noah Lomax) does not completely understand what has just happened. He pleads to just return to the safety of his own room.
But real estate Rick Carver has neither the time nor the inclination to consider the victims. It's hardly personal or even human at all. It's merely the system and Carver is its agent. When Carver's crew chief fails him, he is just as quick to exploit Dennis Nash's construction skills and desperate needs into the service of evicting others.
For Nash the slope is slippery. Before he completely realizes the ramifications, Nash has done Faust proud, shifting gears easily from oppressed to agent of doom, a mini Carver of others' failed dreams . . . flipped from frying pan to short order cook. Carver seduces Nash first with a life line of enough money to pay his immediate bills, then with the opportunity to reclaim his old house and ultimately with the riches of real estate foreclosure. But neither mother, nor son are sanguine about the changed Dennis Nash. They provide the moral compass as Dennis descends uneasily into the agency of eviction.
There is no ethical moment about Rick Carver. He forcefully explains how the market forces shaped him. The lives of others are of little concern to him. Nor is legality a consideration. He is only bound by what he can get away with.
Writer Director Ramin Bahrani ("Goodbye Solo," "Man Push Cart") has effectively recast hell as the foreclosure real estate market. Bahrani, a Guggenheim Fellow and Professor of Film Directing at Columbia, was called the "director of the decade" by Roger Ebert. In one ferocious, breath taking montage of evictions he adroitly sketches a landscape of an America where Norman Rockwell has sequed into Bruegel's The Triumph of Death. And what better devil than the uber intense Michael Shannon ("Take Shelter," "Freeheld") and Faust than the earnest tempted innocent Andrew Garfield ("The Amazing Spiderman 1 and 2"). These principals are ably abetted by the troubled Laura Dern ("Jurassic Park," "Blue Velvet") and Noah Lomax ("Safe Haven," "Playing for Keeps").
As good as are Bahrani's writing and the superb ensemble acting, the fearful strength of "99 Homes" is rooted in the nature of the society that gives rise to such stories. There are no happy endings in sight.