Garfield, Shannon Raise "99 Homes"

How entertaining could a heavy-handed drama about the 2010 United States foreclosure crisis – one with a comically bad climax – possibly be? Pretty entertaining, it turns out.

Writer-director Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes” is as affecting as it is ham-fisted, its brilliant cast confidently delivering the picture through bouts of graceless dialogue and unlikely story developments. Although blunt force in its opposition to subtlety, it works as an immersive, well-meaning thriller that’s endlessly relatable and consistently compelling.

Andrew Garfield (“The Social Network”) stars as Dennis Nash, a struggling construction worker and father who lives in a modest ranch-style house with his mother (Laura Dern) and young son (Noah Lomax). Within minutes of the film’s opening, they’re bounced from their home into the harsh Orlando sunlight like a baby being bounced from the womb. Dennis is soon willing to do just about anything to reclaim not just his property, but his virility.

Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”) co-stars as Rick Carver, the tyrannical real-estate broker who seems to not mind – if not outright relish – expelling Dennis from his home. The well-coiffed agent follows his evictions with a practically post-coital puffing of an e-cigarette, towering above his underlings with a God-like sense of purpose. He sees his work as good and important, more than just a byproduct of a broken system.

The movie’s hook sees Dennis jump at the opportunity to work under Rick, passing the evil done to him onto others in a desperate ploy to get his house back. With his mom and son languishing in a ratty motel room, our protagonist cozies up to his own personal devil, climbing the ranks on his way to becoming Rick’s right-hand man.

The performances of both Garfield and Shannon are utterly indispensable. The former’s hangdog melancholy begs for empathy while the latter’s psychotic love of his profession is never less than captivating. If their relationship initially seems like a screenwriting gimmick, the actors grow the bond to a point where we no longer question it.

Laura Dern is nearly as good, giving an interesting dimension to Dennis’ family that a typical nuclear unit would have lacked.

As Bahrani ratchets up his story’s pseudo-Stockholm syndrome tilt, the endgame gets muddier, building up to a potentially knockout finale. It never comes – in fact, it’s exceptionally clumsy – but not damaging enough to erase the good that preceded it.

“99 Homes” is surprisingly accessible for such dry subject matter, its real-life implications providing a fertile pitch for drama. It’s easy to imagine a lifeless version of the movie without Garfield and Shannon, but it’s a hypothetical washed away by two actors at the top of their games.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: September 25, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Broad Green Pictures
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Screenwriter: Ramin Bahrani, Amir Naderi
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Noah Lomax
MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references, and a brief violent image)