99 Homes, Ramin Bahrani’s uneven torrent of rage and hopelessness set amidst the 2010 housing crisis in Orlando, may singlehandedly create the scariest new genre of the 21st century: realty horror. It’s a film where the monsters all drive Range Rovers and meet in sleek high-rise boardrooms, where the killing blow occurs in letters from the bank and upon front doorsteps, where the bloodletting is approved by judges and officiated by the police. Bahrani has crafted a cautionary tale of such suffocating breadth it’s distressing just to contemplate its implications: don’t dare dream too big, because every aspiration comes rife with forces all vying to profit from your downfall, and your will to fight can’t possibly compete with their schemes and connections.
What’s frightening is how small-scale these dreams have to be to warrant such wrath and ruin. A second child? An added room to accommodate an elderly parent? A pool? 99 Homes turns a simple step beyond one’s means into a full-on personal apocalypse, one where the quaint, misguided American ideal of constantly seeking to better your situation becomes an irrevocable march towards hardship and insolvency. And, unlike, say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Conjuring—horror films owning the narrowest of origins in truth—Bahrani’s tale of terror represents the story of literally millions of Americans, spinning out of the brutal housing market bloodbath of the late Oughts that ripped apart the middle class and left a gaping wound still not healed over half a decade later.
At the center of this maelstrom is Rick Carver, opportunistic bastard and realtor extraordinaire. Carver, played with a reptilian steeliness by the ever-reliable Michael Shannon, sees the chaos and wreckage of the housing industry as a goldmine, a near-endless font of graft and government handouts. Carver serves as a sort of realty enforcer, commandeering evictions for banks foreclosing on drowning homeowners, then reselling the expropriated properties for a tidy profit. He’s not evil (not in the traditional horror movie sense, anyway) but he’s an unrivaled manipulator, able to salvage every last cent that can be scraped from foreclosed homes, be it skimming off the top of quick $3500 Cash-for-Keys buyouts from desperate mortgagers or sending in workers to pilfer air conditioning units from empty houses so the government will pay him to replace them.
Into this world comes Dennis Nash, an out-of-work homebuilder who sees his family home snatched away due to bad finances, even worse advice, and an unsympathetic court system. Nash, played by a shockingly good Andrew Garfield (nice to see him back on track after that unfortunate Spider-Man diversion), is desperate to provide a roof for his mother and adolescent son, and finds himself in the unenviable position of taking work from Carver a day after Carver shows up on his doorstep with a pair of policemen and an eviction crew. Carver likes Nash, though, sees him as somewhat of a kindred spirit, and soon Nash becomes a protégé to the real estate baron, helping execute the various cash grabs and underhanded angles that turned Carver into a millionaire.
Thus 99 Homes unfolds as a seduction-of-the-innocent story, a modern morality play where we see poor young Nash enthralled by the opportunities generated by Carver’s misdeeds and maneuvers. And it’s hard not to sympathize with Nash’s temptation, what with Carver venomously telling him, “”America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners, by rigging a nation of the winners, by the winners, for the winners.” (Bitter truth, that.) Yet Bahrani can’t quite balance the outrage with the dramatics. As Nash, Garfield displays a convincing everyman desperation, but his story never feels as intriguing as the madness going on around him. Nash is meant to be the film’s emotional center, and indeed his descent into Carver’s rapacious lifestyle powers the first two-thirds of the story. Bahrani falters, however, when his desire for third act bombast trumps nuance and characterization. Contrivances pile up to a near-unforgivable degree—Chekhov’s son’s classmate, I guess?—and the climax comes across as a weak attempt at resolution rather than the angry all-caps epithet and exclamation point the film deserves.
It’s a shame that all this righteous indignation gets diluted by the familiar path the narrative ultimately takes. After all, 99 Homes contains one of the most unsettling montages put to film in a long while, a heartwrenching patchwork of cruelty and loss that sees family after family getting tossed from their homes as Nash learns the ropes of Carver’s trade. Yet nothing in the final twenty minutes comes close to carrying the emotional gutpunch of this sequence. Bahrani delivers tidiness where only sloppy, unhinged fury will do, negating a good bit of the ire conjured up earlier in the film. 99 Homes should leave you shaken and outraged, not mildly assuaged.
Still, the bleak reality Bahrani paints is far grimmer and more haunting than 95 percent of modern horror films. He shows how the American middle class has transitioned from the backbone of the economy to the scapegoat, how predatory banks and an overloaded judicial system have turned the simple act of owning a home into a nesting doll of peril. Granted, this seemingly unending stream of conspirators and risk becomes oppressive when you realize just how many different people and agencies Bahrani wants to place blame upon—it’s assholes all up and down the chain, man, from avaricious CEOs to delusional homeowners. Yet this wide swath of culpability feels unmistakably American as well. Bahrani might not have given us the best film of 2015, but damned if 99 Homes doesn’t feel like the most important.