'99 Homes': A Morality Play Built On Foreclosures And Evictions In Ramin Bahrani's new film, a man forces others out of their homes in an effort to save his own. Critic David Edelstein says 99 Homes shines a spotlight on a "poisonous financial ecosystem."
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'99 Homes': A Morality Play Built On Foreclosures And Evictions

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'99 Homes': A Morality Play Built On Foreclosures And Evictions

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'99 Homes': A Morality Play Built On Foreclosures And Evictions

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The son of Iranian immigrants, writer-director Ramin Bahrani won a following with his indie films, "Man Push Cart," "Chop Shop" and "Goodbye Solo." He was called the new great American director by the late critic Roger Ebert, to whom Bahrani dedicates his latest film. It's called "99 Homes" and stars Michael Shannon as a realtor who gets rich off foreclosures and Andrew Garfield as his reluctant employee.

Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The most powerful morality plays work like drama instead of melodrama so you're not just on the side of the victim, you also see the world through the eyes of the oppressor. "Wall Street" did that, although Oliver Stone made the devil mentor of the wide-eyed protagonist, Gordon Gekko, so charismatic that a generation of money men adopted him as a role model. Ramin Bahrani's "99 Homes" works on the same principle with one key difference. The villain is Rick Carver, a predatory Florida realtor, played by Michael Shannon. But the guileless apprentice he corrupts begins as one of his victims. That victim is Dennis Nash, played by Andrew Garfield. Nash is a skillful builder, but the market has fallen out of the construction business, and he barely gets work. He takes out a loan he can't repay on the house in which he lives with his mom, played by Laura Dern, and his young son. Early on, he fights foreclosure before a brusque judge. Then comes a knock at the door - the sheriff, and behind him, Carver.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "99 HOMES")

RANDY AUSTIN: (As Deputy Anderson) Good afternoon.

ANDREW GARFIELD: (As Dennis Nash) Afternoon.

AUSTIN: (As Deputy Anderson) I'm Deputy Anderson with the sheriff's department. And we're here to serve you with a court ordered eviction.

GARFIELD: (As Dennis Nash) OK. Well...

AUSTIN: (As Deputy Anderson) So sir or ma'am, do you have any weapons on your body or anywhere in the house that we need to know about?

LAURA DERN: (As Lynn Nash) No. No, no, no, no (laughter). Not us.

AUSTIN: (As Deputy Anderson) Mr. Carver?

MICHAEL SHANNON: (As Rick Carver) Good morning sir, ma'am. My name's Rick Carver, I'm a licensed real estate broker...

GARFIELD: (As Dennis Nash) Mr. Carver.

DERN: (As Lynn Nash) Rick? Hi.

SHANNON: (As Rick Carver) ...And I'm very sorry to tell you that this home has been foreclosed on and officially transferred to the bank, and I'm going to need you to please vacate the premises.

GARFIELD: (As Dennis Nash) I understand what you're saying, Mr. Carver, and we've been getting our eviction notices. I was in court yesterday...

DERN: (As Lynn Nash) Yeah.

GARFIELD: (As Dennis Nash) ...And the judge informed me that I got 30 days to file for an appeal, and that's what I intend to do.

SHANNON: (As Rick Carver) Well, if you've posted bond and you have an emergency stay signed by the judge, you're welcome to...

GARFIELD: (As Dennis Nash) I've got a question. You guys didn't get any rescheduling of the...

SHANNON: (As Rick Carver) What I received is a court order signed by a judge. It says you are to vacate these premises today.

DERN: (As Lynn Nash) We were scared of this.

SHANNON: (As Rick Carver) This home is owned by the bank.

EDELSTEIN: That scene goes on and on. The handheld camera swerves with the characters as the mother cries out in grief and Nash pleads and argues. Bahrani presents this as a primal violation. Owning a home in the U.S. is hugely freighted with issues of self-worth. I found the scene so excruciating, I had to get up and walk around the back of the theater.

"99 Homes" turns on an improbability you just have to go with. Carver takes a shine to Nash, who proves himself by taking charge of the cleanup of a house where the evicted owners deliberately backed up the septic tank. Soon, Carver's giving Nash loads of money to strip foreclosed homes of appliances and, later, carry out evictions. The carrot is that if Nash makes enough, he can buy back his home. The audience is in a tough spot, rooting for Nash to succeed and cringing as he does unto others what was done unto him.

"99 Homes" evokes a 2010 scandal, a spate of so-called robo-signed Tampa Bay Area foreclosures, sometimes fraudulent, with judges rubber-stamping evictions and law firms reaping millions in fees. In the best devil-mentor tradition, Shannon's Carver explains to a conscience-stricken Nash his worldview.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "99 HOMES")

SHANNON: (As Rick Carver) You think America in 2010 gives a flying rat's [expletive] about Carver or Nash? America doesn't bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners, by rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners. You go to church, Nash? You go to church?

GARFIELD: (As Dennis Nash) Sure.

SHANNON: (As Rick Carver) Only one in a hundred's going to get on that ark, son, and every other poor soul is going to drown. I'm not going to drown.

EDELSTEIN: I love Shannon. He has an antsy, wild-man vibe, but he's a disciplined actor, marvelous in the theater. He makes Carver a man who has channeled his demons with startling efficiency. But as you can tell from Carvers speech, "99 Homes" is sometimes written with a heavy hand, and Garfield, though hard-working, overplays Nash's feelings of guilt. He doesn't want the audience to hate him even for a moment. So when he evicts people, he looks as distraught as they do. Fortunately, Laura Dern makes Nash's mother so decent and unaffected that you understand her son's reluctance to tell her the source of his cash. You know you're damned if you can't tell your mom what you do for a living.

"99 Homes" builds to a predictable but smashingly effective climax. Bahrani makes you understand how this poisonous financial ecosystem thrives. His early films, among them, "Man Push Cart" and "Chop Shop," were lucid studies of people on the outside of society. Here he shows that in an economic climate this unstable, everyone fancies him or herself an outsider liable to be victimized and can justify any bad deed. Even the evictors fear they're one step away from eviction.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On Monday's show, a day in the life of an oncology nurse. We hear from Theresa Brown, author of the new memoir, "The Shift." Brown's first book, "Critical Care," chronicling her first year as a nurse, is used as a textbook at many nursing schools. Before becoming a nurse, Brown was a professor of English. Hope you can join us then.

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