While watching Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes, it’s hard not to think about presidential candidate and master of the art of the real estate deal, Donald Trump. Real estate agent Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) says to his young disciple (Andrew Garfield), “Don’t get too sentimental about a home. They are just boxes. Some are big and some are little. The point is to own a lot of them.” Sounds like something that might come out of the mouth of The Donald.
This is a film about the popping of the real estate bubble in 2008, a time when millions of Americans found themselves “under water” and banks were placing homes of all values into foreclosure. Why it’s taken the film industry more than seven years to dramatize this national financial upheaval is confounding, as is the fact that few of the malefactors – the large mortgage bundlers and the unscrupulous small-time mortgage brokers – have gone to jail.
Carver doesn’t have the oversized personality of Trump; he often looks like a prison of life rather than its master. Nor does he work on deals in the millions; his prey are those foreclosed properties around Orlando that have been devalued to a little more than $100,000, a 50-75% drop in the price paid for them. And it’s true that Trump seems to flirt less with unethical practices than does Carver, though we wouldn’t be surprised if, during his presidential run, this year’s Woodward and Bernstein located Trump’s “deep throat.”
There is something sorrowful about Carver that elicits some modest sympathy. He says that he got into the business for the pleasure (and profit) of putting people into homes, but since the economy tanked, and since he’s got a wife and daughters to house and feed, he’s forced to make his living removing people from their houses. He postures as a little guy who has been manipulated like most of his fellow citizens by the big banks and a government all too zealous about helping Americans realize the dream of home ownership. Americans have been betrayed, community has become non-existent, and the mentality of the shark tank prevails. Carver is the kind of guy with a grievance who would show up at a Trump rally. On the margins of the film is the indictment of all of the public policies (easy credit, favors for the building industry), endorsed mostly by Republicans but also by a fair share of Democrats that have created the nightmare.
Shannon plays the conceal and carry Carver as a study in slime. He assists law enforcement to bring about the evictions of clueless and pitiful defaulters. He’s got a motley crew particular swift at getting all of the houses belongings onto the lawn right after the couple and their kids drive away with the valuables. Bahrani casts ordinary folks in the roles of the evicted and they are scarily convincing. The scamming, home-flipping Carver also know how to rip out air conditioners and pool pumps so that the banks, eager to get the property off their ledgers, will compensate him for their replacements. And he’s not above forging documents the will enable the overworked municipal judges to rule against the homeowner. It all adds up to a pretty toxic character, so we don’t really need to see that Carver keeps a mistress in a separate property where he hold parties that are pale imitations of Gatsby’s.
The movie hinges on the moral decisions of Dennis Nash, a single dad who lives with his beautician mother (Laura Dern) and his pre-adolescent son. Nash is one of the first of Carver’s prey. He’s a construction worker who’s out of work because of the collapse of the market. Forced to relocate to a seedy motel, Nash, desperate to work and get his home back, throws in his lot with Shannon. Shannon knows he has an enforcer who will be ruthless with others when Nash shows him that he’s willing to enter a foreclosed home and shovel out the sewer back up created by the vindictive former occupants. The movie charts the conflicted rise and complicated fall of Nash. Eager for money then seduced by the prospect of owing a starter-castle on a lake, Nash learns painfully how dangerous the shark tank is.
While Trump is the latest in a long line of savior politicians who promise us “a chicken in every pot” and “so much winning we’ll have it coming out of our ears,” Bahrani’s film provides us with a suggestion of what kind of dystopia that a Trump presidency would create. It’s a world where the stupid deserve to lose; those poor dopes should have read the fine printed! It’s a world where the predatory capitalists – even small fish like Carver – profit from the shock to the financial system that they have manufactured. It’s a Hobbesian world where the ruthless and street smart, not the folks who play by the rules or embrace the dream, deserve to triumph. The subdivisions of Orlando were not sites of deep community before the crash, and with foreclosure signs on every house, they are even less so now.