Growing up, I developed (mostly unconsciously) notions about recreational drugs, not just from Public Service Announcements and Movies of the Week, but from regular television and the movies. Smoking, in the eighties, could go either way, but if you smoked cigars, it likely meant you were a pompous rich person who lacked a moral compass. Pot, however, worked its way into my consciousness as the “good” drug, since all those who used it were depicted as doing nothing more dangerous than wearing flowers in their hair, sitting around campfires singing, or marching for peace. But cocaine on screen tended to be portrayed as a “bad” drug, or at least one in which yuppies snorted it up on restroom mirrors and then went and cheated on their spouses or downsized a corporation. Now, of course, a character smoking can help get you a PG-13 rating, and is generally not a positive quality for a protagonist to have, unless he or she is a historical figure. Vaping had not yet been invented in my youth, but if movies like “99 Homes” are any indication, it’s a habit which signals that the character is morally challenged and is perhaps missing a chunk of his heart.
The villain of “99 Homes,” is a real estate broker played by Michael Shannon, who vapes and remains stone-faced as he evicts resident after resident from their foreclosed homes in Florida. At the beginning of the movie, he is annoyed because the cops want to question him about the poor man who has just committed suicide and is being carried out in a covered stretcher because he preferred death to homelessness. His next set of victims are a recently laid-off construction worker, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a single father who lives with his mom (Laura Dern) and his son, who insist (perhaps rightly) that there’s been a mix-up with their mortgage payment schedule. They argue for awhile, but are forced to vacate the premises and move to a seedy motel which houses other evictees. After running into a series of dead ends when he tries to find work, Andrew begins working for Michael, a job that begins with cleaning up a vacated home to eventually doing the evicting himself (for which Michael helpfully offers him a gun). At first this seems to be a way to retrieve his foreclosed home, but as the job turns into a nightmare, he finds himself sinking in ethical quicksand, and must decide how to halt things.
“99 Homes” ends on an abrupt note, which may leave viewers scratching their heads and saying, “And then what?” But it does a good job making you yourself wonder how far you would go to keep your family home. (If you answered, “Pay my bills on time,” that’s what some of these people genuinely believed they were doing.) Michael’s character doesn’t see himself as a bad guy, just a victim of the government’s lack of ethics and then as a survivor. The title comes from the statistic he gives Andrew – that out of a hundred foreclosures, only one is going to manage to get on the ark and avoid drowning. To be that one might just require doing something you wouldn’t imagine yourself doing ever.