When the bank forecloses what's left is devastated neighborhoods, miserable faces, lines of distracted shoppers at the Thrift City, and exhausted day laborers on the street corner, hoping for work.
"We need a day, we need a day." Dennis (Andrew Garfield) stands in the doorway of his home in Orlando, Florida, "We need a day." His mother Lynn (Laura Dern) nods, grimaces, and starts pushing at the sheriff, arrived to evict them. "We need a day." Real estate agent Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) steps in. "You've got two minutes."
It's 2010 and the US financial crisis is morphing into its direst shape, forcing thousands of people out of their homes and into unimaginable futures. As 99 Homes begins, the newly unemployed construction worker Dennis has missed just enough mortgage payments to land him in a rudimentary court hearing ("File an appeal: you have 30 days like everyone else") right around the same time that Carver shows up. The pace of these proceedings is startling, certainly speedier than Dennis or his mom expected. In a couple of minutes, they've got their belongings on the front lawn; a couple of hours later, they've loaded as much as they can into his pickup truck and moved into a motel down the road. "This place is half full of people like us," says Lynn, squinting against the setting sun. "They're not like us," insists Dennis. And yes, he clenches his teeth.
Here they find a crowd of folks in their position, only their nightmares have stretched on and on, stuck paying weekly rent for months and then years. Determined that he won't end up like his new neighbors -- and alarmed when he discovers some of his tools have disappeared -- Dennis roars off to find Rick's crew, angry, recently out-of-work construction workers like him, sure they've robbed him.
This encounter goes about as well as the courtroom scene did, except that Rick is impressed with his gumption, which is to say, his desperation, when he agrees to go into another foreclosed property whose anguished owner backed up the sewage system when he left. It's a grim moment, as Dennis ties his kerchief over her face and slogs inside, Rick at a safe-from-the-smell distance, pleased to observe his new point man.
You can guess where this is headed. Dennis finds himself increasingly willing to do dirty work, stealing appliances, threatening and lying to eventual evictees, and finally, conducting evictions, mimicking Rick's heartless ritual even as his own voice cracks and his face goes slack. He hides his source of income from his mom and his young son Connor (Noah Lomax) until he can't. And when yet another newcomer to the motel inevitably recognizes him, he fights him, playing tough guy even as he knows he'll never be one. On one hand, he aspires to feel as secure, or at least as middle-class rich as Rick, frequently sucking on his e-cigarette, sign of his diabolical shortcutting. On another hand, he's rejecting all the decent values his mother assumes he absorbed from her.
Disappointing mom is one thing. Raising his own son is another. And living with himself, that's yet another. While Dennis never freelances, but instead follows Rick's sometimes brutal directives, Ramin Bahrani's film offers scene after scene in which Dennis is alone, driving his truck, sneaking into yards at night to carry off water heaters and AC units, sorting out whether to purchase a gun for protection against what Rick calls "surly homeowners." "I gotta work," Dennis tells himself. Rick gives him a logic: "Everybody's got a sob story," he says, "but the law's the law." Unless, of course, it makes his real estate flipping harder. Then it's an irritation to be overcome.
Rick's logic -- take what you can, when you can -- is visible everywhere, in devastated neighborhoods and miserable faces, in lines of distracted shoppers at the Thrift City and exhausted day laborers hoping to be selected on the street corner. Such visual details don't so much move the story as they present a dense moral context: when Connor pleads with his dad he doesn't want to get on the schoolbus but does anyway, you watch for a moment, alongside Dennis, as the vehicle lumbers away into a day that you know will be difficult.
Left behind with Dennis, you're witness to his increasingly bad choices in a plot that's increasingly overstated, in a political argument that turns visceral. In this, 99 Homes is more like Bahrani's At Any Price, in which manifest ethical lines set up for inevitable, wrenching, showdowns, and less like Goodbye Solo or Man Push Cart, earlier films where differences between options remain blurred, where time is less linear than elusive. Even as time continues to run away from Dennis, even as he never quite finds that day he says he needs, 99 Homes keeps track.