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Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon eyeball a potential new property in 99 Homes.

I liked Ramin Bahrani’s movies much better when they weren’t about white people. The 40-year-old North Carolina native of Iranian descent began his career making terrific micro-budget movies about immigrants in America, whether those immigrants were from Pakistan (Man Push Cart), the Dominican Republic (Chop Shop), or Senegal (Goodbye Solo). These films used nonprofessional actors, told stories about people with modest ambitions, and pivoted on small but important insights and revelations. Unfortunately, recognizable Hollywood stars found their way to these films and wanted to work with Bahrani, and his sense of subtlety went out the window as he tried to accommodate them with Hollywood-style catharses. This was true for his farmland drama At Any Price, and now it’s true for his latest.

99 Homes is set in 2010 during the Florida housing bust that leaves Orlando construction worker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) unemployed and underwater thanks to an ill-timed investment in an expensive set of tools. A bankruptcy judge orders him, his mother (Laura Dern), and his young son (Noah Lomax) evicted from their family home, and a Fannie Mae Realtor named Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) and two sheriff’s deputies serve the eviction. However, when Dennis later goes to Rick to demand their house back, the estate agent sees a use for Dennis’ talents to help him acquire properties at dirt-cheap rates.

Maybe Bahrani would have been better off going all the way and doing a blockbuster or a genre piece. In this context, though, the histrionics feel false and the ironies canned, from Dennis’ rise through Rick’s company to his run-in with a pissed-off evictee to the climax with a different pissed-off homeowner wielding a gun. Garfield’s one-note performance just contributes to the fraudulence here.

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The sole note of authenticity is struck by Shannon. Formerly typecast as the crazy bad guy, Shannon is now getting to play characters who are closer to normal, and while he’s never going to be understated with that 6’4” frame and that armor-piercing glare, he’s seizing his chance. Here he creates a cynical villain who’s more than just a monster. He’s an embittered guy who firmly grasps how screwed up the system is that gives him so much incentive to prey on the poor and the unlucky. He expresses it all in a memorable monologue: “No person in their right mind wouldn’t rather put someone in a home than drag someone out of it.” (It’s a pretty good speech, too, until Bahrani and co-writer Amir Naderi start comparing the American people to the animals on Noah’s Ark.) For all his cleverness, Rick doesn’t grasp until the end how he’s nearly as helpless as Dennis when it comes to controlling his own fate. Shannon renders this all with an enviable ease. If only the filmmakers had been so adroit.

[box_info]99 Homes
Starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon. Directed by Ramin Bahrani. Written by Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi. Rated R.[/box_info]

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