If the devil comes to us disguised in charisma, there may be no greater Satan in the movies right now than Michael Shannon. With his brimstone eyes and lips curled in self-righteous disgust, a mouth that spits bullets of greed and amorality so beautifully phrased you want to sign right up, the actor routinely makes a best-case scenario for bad ideas. In Ramin Bahrani’s quietly blistering drama “99 Homes,” Shannon plays Rick Carver, a Florida real estate operator specializing in home evictions and house flips, with a few tricks on the side for stealing money from Fannie Mae. He’s the embodiment of evil, a swaggering bloodsucker, and you can’t take your eyes off him.
“99 Homes” is a moral drama of American struggling and striving, and it opens with a scene that tears at your heart: A construction worker, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), is evicted with his young son, Connor (Noah Lomax), and mother, Lynn (Laura Dern), from the modest brick house in which he grew up. The movie puts you right into the stalemate with the cops at the front door and shows you how it’s not a stalemate but a steamroller, with a lifetime of residence, of belonging, reduced to two minutes to clear out.
Dennis catches Carver’s eye, though, and he’s soon doing plumbing and electrical pick-up work on the realtor’s properties. And then he gets invited further in, swayed by the older man’s ruthless Darwinism. Dennis needs the money, even as he hides from his family where he’s earning it, and on some level he’s turned on by the power, too — of finally being a shark instead of a guppy. And suddenly he’s the guy on the other side of that front door.
Bahrani is an Iranian-American filmmaker, North Carolina-born, whose early films (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop,” “Goodbye Solo”) are low-budget gems that hide social concerns behind taut drama and well-scripted characters. With 2013’s “At Any Price,” which played like “Death of a Salesman” in the American heartland, the director worked with Hollywood stars and larger themes, and the strain showed. In “99 Homes,” Bahrani reins in his ambitions — just a little — and once again fully connects.
The movie works as a twinned character study, a moral suspense thriller, and an indictment of an America stacked against its working classes. The upscale mansions Carver likes to sell are empty, pre-fab, hollow; the cheap motels where evictees languish become town centers for the dispossessed. Working for Carver puts money, real money, in Dennis’s pocket, and Garfield ably conveys the corrosion of a decent man. How far can he go down this road? At what point is he no longer a “nice guy”?
Shannon’s character has no interest in being a nice guy — that’s what makes him attractive. He preps his student with bitter doses of real estate realpolitik: “Dennis, you borrowed $60,000 and didn’t pay it back — ain’t that stealing?” is how Carver rationalizes his own extra-legal tactics. Above all, he cautions Dennis to never be emotional about real estate: “They’re boxes. What matters is how many you own.”
“99 Homes” shows us enough stricken faces and situations to remind us that those boxes hold lives, and it hints that the real villains of this story live far from the streets, wear suits, and think in neighborhoods and towns rather than individual houses. It may even be that front-line parasites like Rick Carver are as much victims as victimizers. “99 Homes” says that the US housing market and its attendant practices have become so corrupt, so rigged against the little guys, that even the devil himself may be ready for some sympathy.
★ ★ ★ ★
Directed by Ramin Bahrani. Written by Bahrani, Amir Naderi, and Bahareh Azimi. Starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 112 minutes. R (language, including some sexual references, a brief violent image).