99 Homes

(M) Starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern

One of the best movies this year, domestic drama 99 Homes hits at where we live. While set in the American state of Florida after the Global Financial Crisis, this revealing study of what someone will do to protect their home could easily be located in your neighbourhood. In your street. In your house. Or mine.

With the cost of housing in Australia being a crippling financial reality for far too many, 99 Homes could be about any of us who struggle to make ends meet. Watching labourer and single dad Dennis (Andrew Garfield) sell his soul in exchange for the keys to his house is an emotional experience.  But, as 99 Homes so memorably demonstrates, the cost of material possessions isn’t just about money. Far from it. When our values become led by the things that we can have, what always suffers is what really counts – our relationships, beliefs and integrity.

Having been laid off from his job and unable to stop a court order that evicts him, his son (Noah Lomax) and his mum (Laura Dern) from their family home, Dennis is desperate. He makes a massive decision the day after they’re booted out for not making mortgage repayments: he goes to work for property developer Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the man who evicted him 24 hours earlier. That sounds like a ridiculous decision but, as writer-director Ramin Bahrani masterfully does throughout this modern fable, Dennis’s choice is credible and easy to swallow. What becomes harder to handle is how Dennis’ involvement with Rick leads him down an increasing path of destruction that we can painfully see coming before he does.

Garfield is best known for his recent starring roles as Spider-Man but Dennis offers him the chance to play an ordinary guy who must rescue his family without super powers. Often with only a look, not words, Garfield expresses the wounded pride and justified dodgy-ness of someone obsessed with the American (or Australian) dream. That dream of being able to provide for family, keep a roof over head, and enjoy the good things in life. As Dennis’ initial choice to join Rick drags him deeper and deeper into doing to others families what was done to him, understated Garfield is able to hold our sympathy while inviting our scorn.

Not that 99 Homes is an exercise in judging Dennis. Or Rick, for that matter, even though he’s the sort of slimy yet slick operator who you want to punch AND play a round of gold with. Shannon is purpose-built to be such a devil and his cocky intensity never destroys the realism of what’s unfolding. Still, rather than hiss at Rick or feel sorry for Dennis, Bahrani seems to want us to consider the great tragedy he’s displaying.

Much of what Rick and Dennis do is legal. As awful as it is to watch them evict people from their homes, it’s often what the letter of the law requires. The great tragedy on display, though, is the personal cost that often is the forgotten victim within financial transactions. Dennis works for Rick to make money for his family. But that right motivation is steadily destroyed by the priority of making more and more and more. Such greed and selfishness doesn’t just eat away at what Dennis prizes the most – his close bond with his mum and son. It also washes away his integrity and his sense of right and wrong, because his own needs are increasingly placed above those of others.

The wealth of links 99 Homes has to Christianity is vast. From not being a slave to money (Matthew 6:19-24) to recognising our own sinful motives (Mark 7:1-23), Christianity is a way of living that challenges Rick Carver’s sales pitches.

“Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them” (Luke 6:31) is a frequently stated teaching of Jesus that stacks of people support. It captures so much about the sacrificial, generous, compassionate and servant-hearted way of living that Jesus exemplified. But 99 Homes reveals how situations come up that make it difficult for us to walk the straight and narrow. Dennis is a decent guy whose world falls apart. Understandable why he struggles to do the right thing as he struggles to survive.

Thing is, there’s hope and help available to us, no matter what situation we are in. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man,’ writes the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:13, about anything a Christian faces that entices them to sin. “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

99 Homes is a vivid, memorable warning about the personal cost of giving in to such temptations.

What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film?

  1. What should we value most? (Matthew 22:34-40)
  2. How can we feel content about money? (Hebrews 13:5)
  3. Is it possible to stay away from the “wrong” things? (James 4:7-11)

Ben McEachen is co-host of The Big Picture podcast and videos.

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