You’d be forgiven for assuming that an indie drama about forcible evictions during the 2007-2009 U.S. Subprime Morgage Crisis would be a thoroughly bleak affair. And even if you didn’t assume that about 99 Homes, the film sets its pessimistic tone early by opening with the fallout of a suicide. There is a wild card at play here, however, and its name is Michael Shannon. Shannon is notoriously deft at playing hilariously terrifying monsters & his turn as a money-obsessed real estate broker in 99 Homes is certainly not relatable or even remotely likeable, but it is, at times, riotously funny. Shannon is such a darkly amusing joy to watch in 99 Homes that his performance often threatens to turn the film into a black comedy. It’s whenever he’s offscreen, leaving Andrew Garfield’s much-suffering construction worker & single father to pick up the pieces of a broken life left in the evil broker’s wake, that Shannon’s antagonist stops being darkly amusing & just simply feels dark.
The story of 99 Homes is fairly straightforward. Michael Shannon’s real estate broker makes most of his money by evicting people from their homes on behalf of the bank. When Shannon’s monster broker evicts Andrew Garfield’s out-of-work construction dad from his family home, Garfield’s desperate blue collar everyman ends up working for the less-than-legal brute. He works his way up from literally shovelling shit to making ludicrous piles of cash as the evil broker’s right hand man. This, of course, leads to Garfield’s sad dad performing the very same heartless eviction practices that ruined his life in the first place & hiding his newfound source of income from his suspicious mother, played by the always-welcome Laura Dern. There’s a devastating amount of empathetic pain in Garfield’s eyes as he explains to people that their homes are now owned by the bank & that they are trespassing on bank property that makes the film at times bleakly arresting. For the most part, though, there aren’t too many surprises in the film’s indie drama formula & it plays out exactly as you’d expect.
It really is Michael Shannon’s performance that makes 99 Homes a memorably visceral experience. Although there is a unignorable consistency to his work as an actor, Shannon brings a terrifying authenticity to the role, something that truly makes you feel bad for laughing, seeing as how this was a real thing that happened to real people very recently. Shannon’s heartless real estate broker is a pitch perfect update to the wicked bankers with the cigar-chomping switched out for e-cigs. (Our next generation of irredeemable villains are vapers. There’s no way around that.) Cop’s call Shannon’s evil broker “boss”. He golfs with politicians in one scene & makes backroom deals to rip off the government with higher-ups at the bank in the next. He brags about how he “made more money during the crash than before” & talks cynically about America as “a nation of the winners by the winners for the winners.” I also particularly liked a moment where he describes houses as boxes that you shouldn’t get emotional about. Instead of saying what matters is what you fill the boxes with, he says it matters how many boxes you have, which is a perfectly succinct summation of his monstrously greedy soul. As with a lot of Shannon’s work, the real estate broker at the center of 99 Homes‘ true-to-life nightmare is deliciously over-the-top in his villainy. Andrew Garfield & Laura Dern are talented actors who hold their own when needed, but Shannon devours so much scenery that there isn’t much left room for them left to stand on. He’s a sight to behold.