99 HOMES. US, 2014, 112 minutes, Colour. Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Clancy Brown, Noah Lomax, Tim Guinee. Directed by Ramin Bahrani.
One of the dire consequences of the global financial crisis of 2008 was the foreclosure on many homes, owners who had borrowed from banks but were unable to pay, the debts sold on to other companies who made merciless demands with a great number of evictions.
This is the setting of 99 Homes, in 2010.
Dennis Nash is a builder, living in his home, with his young son and with Dennis' mother. They are played well by Andrew Garfield, Noah Lomax as, Connor, and Laura Dern. Dennis is on a building job when the finance collapses and he is not paid. Suddenly, the real estate agent, Rick Carver, Michael Shannon always so convincing as a villain, is at the door with police from the sheriff's department and a group of labourers, demanding that Dennis and his family leave the house, are trespassing, because the bank owns the house and has delegated the eviction to Carver and his group - and the family is given two minutes grace to hurriedly pack what they need while the rest of their possessions are removed from the house onto the footpath.
The sequence is quite powerful, disturbing the audience emotionally as they identify with Dennis and his family, their shock, desperation, anger, resignation. They then have to move into a motel where they find families in similar situations.
When Dennis goes back to find his tools which seemed to have been stolen by some of the group, Carver is faced with a crisis in another house and offers Dennis the job, to fix it for ready cash. Dennis agrees, does the job well, and is offered quite a number of jobs, once again cash in hand, by Carver.
The film becomes one of those parables on the Gospel text, "what does it profit to gain the whole world and to lose one's soul?". Not only is Dennis effective at his jobs, he impresses Carver and they form a kind of friendship and partnership, with Dennis called on to do further jobs, especially stealing air conditioning units and swimming pool pumps so that Carver can offer to supply replacements and so gain contracts for selling the houses. Eventually, Dennis becomes an agent of eviction, confronting, especially, a neighbour who had met him in court when the decision went against Dennis and who is now in a similar situation.
Meanwhile, Carver thrives, owns a mansion, and another house lodging a mistress, is involved in million-dollar deals to own further houses and evict more people, a substantial cut going to Dennis who buys a better home for his family. When his mother realises what is going on, especially when, during his son's birthday party, another family arrive at the motel and confront Dennis, she moves out with Connor.
The culmination of the film is, of course, conscience-time, with the neighbour going to court, a forged document submitted, a siege at the house with the rifle, and Dennis having to decide whether his career path has been worthwhile, and whether he has lost his integrity.
Many audiences will identify with the characters and situations, share the feelings of anger and desperation, be torn by the moral dilemmas that face Dennis (but which don't seem to affect Carver). 99 Homes won an award in Venice 2014 from SIGNIS, the World Association for Communication.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 5 2015