Filmmaker Ramin Bahrani has accomplished something the U.S. government failed to do: hold someone accountable for the subprime mortgage crisis that nearly destroyed the American economy.
Granted, Bahrani's film "99 Homes" is fiction, but it may give a measure of satisfaction to those still angry that authorities never went after the major players in the mortgage meltdown.
The movie takes place in Orlando, Florida at the height of the mortgage mess when people by the thousands were losing
their homes to foreclosure.
Real estate entrepreneur Rick Carver (the brilliant Michael Shannon) is making a handsome living ousting families from their homes-- either by offering them "cash for keys" payouts, or if necessary forcefully evicting them with the help of armed Sheriff's deputies.
He's a man as hard as his square jaw, without a shred of sympathy for homeowners who in his view foolishly refinanced their dwellings and could not repay the loans.
One of those homeowners is Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a skilled construction worker and single dad who lives in the home he grew up in, along with his mom Lynn (Laura Dern) and son Connor (Noah Lomax).
After a judge denies Nash's plea to allow him more time to work out a payment plan, Carver and his henchmen show up at the home and coldly kick Nash and his family to the curb. Carver's only regret is the kerfuffle at the Nash place is making him late for the rest of the day's foreclosures. He's got a schedule to keep.
Later, discovering Nash's talent for home building and repair, Carver offers him work and much-needed cash. But it's a Faustian bargain: Nash will have to become another Carver henchman evicting families from their homes. He'd be doing unto others what just got done unto him.
The film makes clear that from Carver's point of view, moral dilemmas of the kind facing Nash are for saps. In this Darwinian struggle for economic survival, the weak are not going to make it. To Nash he says, you can go down with them, or wise up and profit from the opportunity.
As played by Shannon, Carver is a fascinating Mephistophelian character, but not evil incarnate. He knows where he ranks in the scheme of things: somewhere above the Nashes of the world, but well below the true power brokers responsible for the economic chaos: the Wall Street types and their confederates in Congress.
He tells Nash (paraphrasing here), "In America we don't bail out the losers. We bail out the winners."
Can anyone argue with that? I'm sure plenty of Republicans would, whose primary goal seems to be protecting the interests of the ruling class. In "99 Homes" the fix is in-- let the middle and working classes be damned.
The film reminded me of the fine documentary "American Casino", one of the most successful films I've seen at explaining what happened to cause the mortgage crisis.
I did a piece for CNN on the film and to illustrate it I traveled to Victorville, California to speak with the Lomaxes, a couple who were underwater on their house and close to being evicted.
Mr. Lomax was on disability; his wife worked intermittently. Their means were modest but that didn't keep lenders at the height of the housing bubble from offering them a $300,000 mortgage with an interest rate that would re-set after two years.
Don't worry, the mortgage broker had told them. In two years time the home will have gained plenty of value and you can refinance at a fixed rate you can actually afford.
Except their home went from a paper value of $320,000 to about $120,000.
They were unsophisticated people who did not realize the risk they were taking on. And they lost big in this American casino.
They weren't the only losers. So were millions of other homeowners-- in California, in Florida, in Nevada, Rhode Island, take your pick. The biggest losers of all were the American taxpayers-- forced to bail out the kind of speculators who got the Lomaxes and people like them into mortgages, and the investors who repackaged such toxic assets into "collateralized debt obligations."
"99 Homes" is a compelling and realistic look at what happened in the mortgage meltdown. It may appear to some as a period piece, given that our economy has begun finally to struggle free of the crisis.
But as Rick Carver could tell you, the system hasn't changed.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.