Alert: Possible Spoilers
How can someone do exactly to other people what’s been done to him? That’s the big psychological question in Ramin Bahrani’s new film, 99 Homes. How can Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) become the right-hand man to the very real estate developer (Michael Shannon) who callously uses the housing market collapse to repossess and evict him (and countless others) from his foreclosed home? In these men, we find two disparate answers to how someone becomes exactly what he starts out hating.
As the film begins, there’s a bloody bathroom and a dead body – a man who couldn’t face losing his home. To developer Rick Carver and his corrupt crew, he’s not a person, a tragedy, a man who sadly saw no other way out. He’s merely in the way, an inconvenience to clean up and move out so they can continue to reap the rewards. That’s only the beginning.
There’s person after person – people with children, an elderly man with no one. It doesn’t matter. Forget trying to get someone to listen. Or help. It’s the law. This house isn’t yours anymore. It belongs to the bank. You have just the fewest of minutes to grab what you can of your entire life. The lock changing crew moves in. Suddenly, you’re out on the street with nowhere to go. And, there’s cold-eyed Carver counting his dollars, and going on to the next victim.
What Makes Someone Become Who He Hates?
On the face of it, treating people this way is simply appalling. But, as a psychologist, I have to take a step back and question just what makes someone become a Rick Carver. Or, even more unexpectedly, a Dennis Nash – who turns against his own experience, his character, and his morals to join up with Carver and do to other struggling people what was done to him. How and why does this happen?
Greed is much too simple an answer. We get a glimpse into what drives Carver. Apparently, the government “screwed” his Dad. What he’s done with this, though, is to consider anyone who gets “screwed”, including his dad, a loser. He’s not going to be a loser. The losers are all out there. They are the ones who can’t keep their homes, the ones that are drowning while he’s found a way to more than stay afloat.
Carver’s not only angry with the government. He also blames his Dad. My clinical guess is he sees his Dad as weak. Weak makes for losers. Carver will be a winner at all costs. To accomplish that, he won’t feel anything. He won’t be soft. He’ll care about no one. He’s mostly hardened against anything, like compassion, that could weaken him. Risk him becoming a loser.
Dennis Nash is another story. For him, desperation is the key. He’s a talented and smart young man, down on his luck. Unable to get a job as hard as he tries. He’s got a son, Connor (Noah Lomax), and his Mom (Laura Dern) to support. Dennis’ Dad failed him too. Unlike Carver, though, Dennis cares. He doesn’t want his son to lose his home, his school or his friends. Terror, helplessness, and anger can lead such a man astray.
Desperation & Then A Crisis of Conscience
Dennis’s need for money derails him. Carver, so good at preying on others, takes advantage of his talent and his panic. Seduces him with the kind of money Dennis has never seen. He can get his house back – his only real goal all along. But, it comes with a huge moral sacrifice and psychological price. Lying to his mother and son. Putting himself and his family in danger. Doing things that go against who he is.
In spite of Carver’s warning to get tough, it’s really not in Dennis’s make-up to turn his back on people in need. He’s apologetic, in terrible conflict, and scared. But, he’s trapped. If he does what he believes is right, he’ll be back where he was. If he doesn’t, hurting people for his own advantage is destroying the life he had.
In the end, Dennis has a crisis of conscience. At least he has one. This echoes one victim’s angry accusation: “How can you live with yourself?” Dennis can’t. He’s almost destroyed a man he knows, and his conscience wins out in the end. We’re left hanging, though, about Carver. As disturbing and thought-provoking as the film is all the way through, I am unfortunately left abruptly with one big, “Huh?”