I had so many questions coming out of the film (and the clever title isn’t evident until the very end, when 1 home is saved in a botched deal), and I wanted to fact check all of Michael Shannon’s speeches. Shannon plays Rick Carver—an ex-real-estate agent turned home-flipping opportunist. He explains to Nash that a broken economy and a broken system made him into a monster. Nash goes on the ride until a man’s life is on the line. But how big is the market for flipping foreclosed homes? And what perverse incentives are there to defraud Fannie and Freddie? It’s desperate measures at desperate times, but I got mixed moral messages from the movie: Borrow too much and you better be ready, but the evictors are bad guys too for confusing families and defrauding the government. It sort of reminds me of payday loans: It’s institutionally hard to understand why people would create such bad loans until you empathize with how much they really need the money. Which is where one of Carver’s many memorable lines—when he slyly convinces Nash, who despises him for taking his home, to become his employee—hits hard: “Fifty dollars shouldn’t be a joke to you, son.”
White: I think the film tries to play on all the potential extremes for human emotion in each of these scenarios. Carver is both the ultimate villain, and a sympathetic product of circumstance. And is Nash, the ultimate victim turned bad guy? There’s a lot to unpack both in character and process, especially since the story attempts to show all sides and avenues of the housing crisis, from purchase to foreclosure, to servicing, to mega-millions real-estate deals in under two hours. Which can make parts of the movie feel especially dense. There is, for sure, tons of complexity in America’s relationships with home buying and the financing mechanisms that were used and abused by businesses at all levels. But trying to tie all of it together in a neat package, and pushing characters to both extremes, instead of more nuanced complexity felt a little forced at times.
So the thing that I found most interesting about the setup of the film was the idea of casting players as winners and losers, which serves as a larger commentary for the state of the country after the recession. At one point, Carver tries to sway Nash to abandon some of his views on right and wrong by saying: “America doesn't bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners, by rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.”
Lam: Yes, let’s talk about Carver’s “winners and losers” speech. Out of context, reading it on paper, it’s much less powerful than in the context of the film. It happens at the midway climax. The gist is America doesn’t care about us, so let’s just do what we have to do to get by. I actually think the moral ambiguity is what makes the film so interesting, that there are these people taking advantage of the situation, modifying people’s mortgages and treating them horribly. For example, earlier this year the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission fined Green Tree $63 million for “mistreating borrowers.” The PBS segment on Green Tree sounds hauntingly similar to the dialogue in 99 Homes—so this stuff is going on in real life. On the other hand, should someone be allowed to keep their house if they haven’t made a mortgage payment in 5 years? Nash would say yes, Carver would say absolutely not. They both have a point.