A man has just committed suicide by gunshot in his own home. Only it wasn't his home, it was the bank's since he had been unable to pay back his loans to them and he and his family now had to be kicked out, and he could not handle that humiliation and financial hardship, leaving his wife and daughters with nowhere to turn. But for the man who represents the bank, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), it's all in a day's work, and he refuses to give a statement to the police because he feels the story is over, all that's left is for him to seize the property and collect the money for it. Meanwhile, construction worker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) has just been told he will not be paid for the two weeks' pointless work on a house that will now be uncompleted…
Which means he and Carver will be working together very soon. 99 Homes was based on a true story about a property dealer who got too big for his boots, hence the ending which sees a comeuppance of sorts, but it felt too pat in light of the amount of people in the financial industry who not only did very well out of the loans scandal where they would bet huge amounts of money on the loans they sold to citizens knowing there was no way they would be able to pay them back, therefore the profits for the banks were enormous. What made it worse was that it never crossed the debtors' minds that they were not getting free money, and that someone had to pay up eventually, that someone being themselves, often in very harsh circumstances.
You could accuse the debtors of being idiots for not looking ahead to what would happen down the line, yet the fact remained the banks sold them these impossible loans well aware of the state it would leave their customers in, actually they were banking on them not being able to pay, so it was a situation that nobody emerged from looking good. 99 Homes was set in 2010 when the crisis was breaking, or even was in full flow, and director Ramin Bahrani was careful to put both cases in his relentless depiction of the public falling foul of laws and contracts they barely had any understanding of, but added in a note of conspiracy when there was corruption occurring within the institutions generating the most profit from the resulting mess.
But this was not a documentary, though at times the action, such as it was, would slow down for the characters to deliver lectures to one another just so we were clearer as to what the moral implications were. Shannon was particularly effective at this, as he made coldhearted Carver's methods of getting one over on his fellow man (or woman) sound horribly reasonable, in that they were basically to blame for signing on the dotted line in the first place, and he was only making sure he and his family ended up in a comfortable set of circumstances because he hated the idea of being as much a victim of the system as those he made his income from were. But Nash had the conscience, and as he starts to work for Carver that troubles him more.
To the point that he suffers crushing guilt at having to chuck people out of their homes day in and day out, which might ensure he has a roof over his head but at the price of others, many others, losing theirs. With a young son to look after and his mother (Laura Dern) living with them after his wife left a while ago, the film posits Nash as victim too, only one who has an unenviable privileged position of having one foot in both camps. Garfield illustrated this inner turmoil well, but the story was not above descending into clichés that threatened to get holier than thou, as when Nash drinks himself into oblivion when his mother refuses to accept the help he is getting from his new source of salary, not to mention a denouement that was rather contrived in tying up the loose ends when in real life nothing had proven to be that neat and tidy, but for a work delivering talking points 99 Homes was a valuable attempt at making a terrible situation understandable, even if the finer elements of law were for the experts. Music by Antony Partos and Matteo Zingales.