Nobody will mistake Ramin Bahrani's superbly acted hard-times morality play 99 Homes for betraying the old crime-doesn't-pay Hays Code 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, his wife complains of vile crank phone calls from the people whose misery funds his life's chintzy opulence.
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, emptied out or just about to be, emphasizing their drab sameness. As Carver and Nash's crimes go from merely immoral to out-and-out illegal, Bahrani's compositions alienate them from the most familiar of American spaces -- the family home. 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 movie 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.