Political Cinema: “99 Homes” and the US Foreclosure Crisis

By Jake Strickler, Staff Writer

In the run-up to the financial collapse of 2008, billions of dollars were doled out by commercial banks in the form of subprime loans: the lending of money to individuals who possess bad credit and/or other characteristics that make their paying the money back unlikely. This tied into a feedback loop involving the nation-wide skyrocketing of home prices, ultimately leading to a speculation craze whereby the principle of “buy low, sell high” became the mantra of house-flippers, many of whom were able to accrue small fortunes in those days of easy money and high appreciation. But for the average person, this time of “irrational exuberance,” as then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan described the dot-com bubble of the 1990s, presented an opportunity to achieve one of the most fundamental goals of the American Dream: home ownership.

Foreclosure rates during the last three decades. Courtesy forbes.com
Foreclosure rates during the last four decades. Courtesy forbes.com

All of this debt was rolled up into neat parcels by the banks, and sold off to investors in the form of such complex and nice-looking financial instruments as mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations, with their bright and shiny exteriors hiding their toxic and incredibly dangerous contents. Concurrently, credit default swaps – essentially insurance policies (though some would say they’re closer to casino bets) on the risk of debt nonpayment – were passed around by the banks, leading to an ever more precarious web of interconnectedness. The banks reaped colossal profits, the American public made it into their dream houses, and everybody was happy, for a little while at least. The housing bubble, as we know, eventually burst with such tremendous force that it took the whole structure built to accommodate it down with it.

When the dust settled, and the institutions that were too big to fail were stopped from doing so only by a massive federal bailout program, the day of reckoning came for those individuals with outstanding debts to banks seeking desperately to shore up the asset columns of their balance sheets. Thusly did the Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 lead in to the Great Recession and Foreclosure Crisis of 2009-2012. During this period, hundreds of thousands of families were evicted from their homes, being forced to live with friends and family or out of their cars or in sleazy motels. The combination of banks desiring to increase liquidity through asset seizure and resale with economic stagnation and a severely depressed job market created a perfect storm of tragedy as many across the country became unable to meet monthly payments and were quite literally thrown out onto the street to fend for themselves.

99 Homes is the new movie by filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, who previously helmed such impressive social issues films as Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007), as well as the tonal misstep that is 2013’s At Any Price, a strange kind of anti-GMO polemic that morphs into a corn-fed heartland film noir. At its center is a twenty-something single dad in Orlando, Florida (ground zero for the housing bust) named Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), who took out a pre-crash mortgage on the house that he shares with his mother (Laura Dern) and young son in order to start his own handyman business. Times were great for him during the housing boom, but when construction across the country ground to a halt, his profession took a turn for the unneeded. Soon, he finds himself coming home to eviction notices taped to the front door. A brief trip through the court system (overloaded almost to the breaking point with a mass of identical cases) gets him wise to the absolute futility and hopelessness of the situation: he owes money, he can’t pay the money, and papers being pushed down the bureaucratic chain from on high say that those simple facts mean that he loses his home.

Movie poster. Courtesy wikipedia.org
Movie poster. Courtesy wikipedia.org

Enter Rick Carver (the always imposing Michael Shannon), a heartless real estate agent motivated by a singular imperative: the ceaseless, tireless acquisition of money. He works as a hired gun for Fannie Mae, the government-sponsored mortgage securitization entity, and has the force of the law on his side in the form of a couple of (dirty) cops on speed dial. One sunny morning, he shows up at the door of the Nash house, informs them that they are scheduled for eviction, and leaves the rest up to the cops and a motley crew of goons in his employ who clear all of the furniture and personal belongings out of the house and dump them out on the front lawn. Defeated and dehumanized, the Nash family moves into a scummy skid-row motel.

Due to a concordance of events, Dennis finds himself again face-to-face with Mr. Carver, who now has a big problem: a family scheduled for eviction has instead scrawled very impolite messages about the American banking system all over the walls and intentionally backed up the toilets, flooding the house with liquid sewage before abandoning it. With his usual team of house raiders growing mutinous over the task at hand, Carver makes Dennis (between a rock and a hard place in terms of his cash-flow standing) an offer that he quite literally can’t afford to refuse: clean up the mess in exchange for a few hundred bucks, cash. Already debased by Carver and figuring he can’t sink much lower, Dennis ties a handkerchief about his nose and mouth, grabs a shovel, and gets to work.

For Dennis, this inaugurates a Faust-like partnership with the man who has caused his family so much pain. Carver, impressed by the young man’s smarts and work ethic, accedes Nash tasks of increasing responsibility, with an accompanying boost in remuneration. These tasks soon start to involve something much ranker than raw sewage: Carver has him participating in evictions himself, as well as committing brazen fraud. You see, Carver’s livelihood comes from the commission earned on repossessing houses and turning them over at a profit for a government-backed entity, but in the Machiavellian world of free market capitalism, this doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t also pickpocket the hand that feeds. Even foreclosed houses have to appeal to buyers, so if they’re missing essential things like ovens or air conditioning units (especially in Orlando), then these items need to be replaced. Carver has found an exceedingly simple way to exploit this necessity: he removes these items, puts them in storage, takes photographs of the places where they used to be for the guy who cuts the checks, and then replaces the “stolen” units after a reasonable period of time. He, of course, sweeps up a tidy sum from this subterfuge.

The unfinished Orlando mansion at the heart of "The Queen of Versailles." Courtesy nyt.com
The unfinished Orlando mansion at the heart of “The Queen of Versailles.” Courtesy nyt.com

Before too long, the checks that Dennis receive creep up into the five-figure range, and he’s back on the road to home ownership. But, having been brought into a life of luxury and hedonism by Carver, his sights are set not on his frumpy old family home, but on one of those McMansions so common to suburban Orlando (for an up-close look at this mind-boggling architectural phenomenon and the mentality that engenders it, please watch the 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles). The movie culminates in a bleak morality play. The livelihood of the Nash family and a multimillion dollar deal engineered by Carver both come to rest in the hands of Dennis, as he has to pick between throwing another family under the bus and getting filthy rich, or remaining honest and losing the source of his recent material gains.

Bahrani’s script and direction are poignant and unobtrusive. Following the stylistic guidelines set forth by his mentor and patron Werner Herzog (objectively the greatest documentary filmmaker who has ever lived) he eschews stylization in favor of a stark verite desire to simply observe and document, even using non-actors to play many of the distressed homeowners. One particularly moving scene involves Dennis taking part in the eviction of an elderly man on the cusp of senility who has nobody to turn to beyond accepting a ride to the local homeless shelter from the police officer there to enforce the eviction.

Such scenes would come off as calculated to tug at our heartstrings if they were not based in fact. We know that these things went on. We know that, though there were people who grabbed at loans with the knowledge that they wouldn’t be able to pay them back, there were a lot of honest and hardworking people living within their means who went down with them when the whole ship sank. In the end, the blame cannot be placed on any particular sector or group of people: the financial services industry went wild over easy astronomical profits without considering the consequences, the American people had their dreams dangled in front of them like catnip and naturally grabbed at them, and the regulators who were supposed to be moderating the whole ordeal were, for whatever reason, not doing so.

Lionel Barrymore as proto-Monopoly Man, offering Jimmy Stewart entree to the high-profit world of commercial banking in "It's a Wonderful Life." Courtesy blogspot.com
Lionel Barrymore as proto-Monopoly Man, offering Jimmy Stewart entree into the dog-eat-dog world of high finance in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Courtesy blogspot.com

To that end, the movie is refreshingly not polemical or explicitly partisan, but instead a straightforward portrait of the absurdity of the operations and priorities of modern America. Carver is not an outsized and cartoonish robber-baron with a cigar permanently clamped in his teeth (rather, it’s occasional pulls at an e-cigarette) like Lionel Barrymore in It’s a Wonderful Life, but a man who very probably exists in reality; a product of a Darwinian culture who does whatever he has to to stay ahead of the pack. At the same time, Dennis is no Jimmy Stewart. He may have a good heart and the right intentions, but the moral ramifications of the means by which he provides for his family are incredibly complex and difficult to navigate. In a flawed system that insists on building an ever higher barrier between the haves and the have-nots, should he not have jumped at the opportunity to crawl through a small opening in it? Can we blame him for choosing the route he did when the alternative is so unpalatable? These are exceedingly difficult questions, and the goal of 99 Homes is not to answer them, but to raise them.

Here’s the preview for 99 Homes. It’s in theaters now but will be available for streaming before too long. I can be reached at jake.strickler@tbird.asu.edu.

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