Right up into the 1960s, the Hays Code demanded that criminals in American movies face punishment by the final reel, a stricture that, however well-intentioned, served to propagate our national myth: that the only route to success is hard work and decency. Crime still doesn't pay, exactly, onscreen — the code is dead, but onscreen crooks still tend to get busted just before the end credits. It's in the movies' middles, though, that something has changed. The lawbreaking life has come to look impossibly alluring: Consider the long vogue of the Scarface T-shirt, or the orgies The Wolf of Wall Street blasted into your face like confetti from a cannon.
Nobody will mistake Ramin Bahrani's superbly acted hard-times morality play 99 Homes for betraying the Hays ideal. Every shot, every beat, in this tale of an Orlando real estate monster (Michael Shannon) profiting off foreclosures is a nail hammered into the indictment Bahrani is framing. Much of the crime here is straight-up legal, but Bahrani denies his villain or his audience any moment to relish the spoils — as soon as Shannon's Rick Carver is alone in his own home, a mansion-like suburban monstrosity devoid of distinguishing characteristics, his wife complains of vile crank phone calls from the people whose misery funds his life's chintzy opulence. He's just annoyed: He has to change the number again?
The film is more closing argument than portrait of life in the downturn, but it's thrillingly vigorous in its damning. Carver explains to reluctant protégé Dennis Nash (played by Andrew Garfield) that houses are nothing to have feelings for — they're just boxes, and all that matters is how many you own. To that end, Bahrani stages the drama in a long series of real houses, new and old, either emptied out or just about to be, emphasizing their drab sameness. As Carver and Nash's crimes accumulate, and go from merely immoral to out-and-out illegal, Bahrani and director of photography Bobby Bukowski's compositions alienate them from the most familiar of American spaces — the family home. There's power in these images, even as Bahrani eschews the Scorsese route of examining crime's allurements. 99 Homes denies its bad eggs even the cheap sensual pleasures that wads of cash can afford. It's courageous and honest to give us a crime film scraped of romance, but it's sometimes priggish, as if its creators aren't quite clear on why people crave money and power.
Yet it's still a film of stature and power, one whose sympathies are with the victims. An early scene, a raw long take, shows us Shannon's hardhearted vulture leading the cops (who call him "boss") in the eviction of the family of Garfield's nice-guy construction worker. The confrontation is ugly, grueling, compelling in its detailed nastiness. It's scripted with circling dialogue that sounds as if the screenwriters (Bahrani and Amir Naderi) simply transcribed actual evictions: Carver and the cops, old pros, stick to their brusque eviction script, playacting that giving the family two minutes to clear out some valuables is a kindness. In response, the family — including Laura Dern as Nash's mother — spins out helpless promises and furious insistences: There's been a mistake; come back after we talk to our lawyers; you're trespassing; and — finally, desperately — but this is our home.
Later, Nash, seeing no other way to raise the money to buy back the house, oversees evictions himself as Carver's right-hand man. Bahrani is relentless in pushing us into these situations, smartly varying the settings and victims but always revealing the same messy drama, the same confounded disbelief crashing against authoritative bluntness. Garfield is excellent in these scenes, making clear in each moment Nash's pain, kindness and self-loathing. You catch Nash steeling himself, swallowing back the heat in his throat, reminding himself of the family-first principle that has made him what he hates.
The rawness of the scenecraft belies the precise plotting-out of moral dilemmas. Nash proves adept at the hustle, brainstorming with Carver how to scam government programs designed to aid homeowners — and soon graduating from handyman to something of a fixer, paying workers cash to steal A/C units from abandoned houses. Garfield proves especially compelling and convincing in the scene of Nash's first compromise, a setup so starkly significant and humiliating it brings to mind Stephen Colbert's old Daily Show swipe at John Edwards, the one about having been raised the son "of a poor Appalachian turd-miner." Foreclosed-on residents have abandoned a house, but not before smearing feces all over the floors and walls; when Carver's crew balks at the cleanup, Nash rolls up his sleeves and gets to it.
It's Nash's willfulness — and command over his gag reflex — that impresses Carver. Shannon dominates the film, but this isn't one of his unknowable inhumans, like that self-flagellating federal agent on Boardwalk Empire. As Carver barks orders and chucks families out on the street, you can see that this man has had to work to grow so callous — that he's willed himself mean, and that meanness has won him millions, but that it's still never easy. 99 Homes' title could also have been the one Bahrani gave to his last picture: At Any Price. Bahrani shows what happens when it becomes more profitable to yoink away the American Dream than it is to encourage people to buy into it. Shannon shows us the toll that that yoinking etches in the face, the mind, the soul.
Inevitably, Carver tasks Nash with one crime too many, and the wrap-up is as tense and aching as it is too precise in its lit-class symmetries. What's most potent and memorable here isn't that ending, which reminds us that crime only pays for a while, nor the overcooked lines where Dern voices the audience's outrage at what Nash has gotten into. Instead, it's that lack of sensuality, that primness that feels a little wrong as the movie unfolds but makes perfect sense afterward: Bastards like Carver do it not because they're seduced but because it's the only way they can feel they're winning.