The Moral Ambiguity of Foreclosure

99 Homes tells the story of millions of Americans.

Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures

Since 2009, there have been more than 12 million foreclosure filings in the U.S. When the housing market, and then the economy, went bust, many homeowners who were behind on payments thanks to adjustable-rate mortgages, job loss, or other financial hardships wound up out in the cold. More than 6 million homeowners got booted from their homes over the course of just a few years.

Ramin Bahrani’s new film, 99 Homes, is billed as a dramatic thriller. Set in 2010, the days after the housing market went bust, it follows Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a young father who has recently lost his Orlando home, and Rick Carver, the real-estate agent who evicts him. Nash runs into Carver after his home is seized, and subsequently becomes Carver’s protege in order to provide for his family. Nash, who initially only harbors the hopes of getting his family’s foreclosed home back, becomes entangled in Carver’s schemes. Below, we discuss the film and its ambitions.

Gillian White: I went into the movie knowing next to nothing about the storyline, other than that it was about the foreclosure crisis. I think that knowledge was probably enough to put me in the correct emotional state for the film. A portion of the movie includes an almost rapid-fire series of looks at people who are losing their homes, and that was heartbreaking.

Bourree Lam: When I saw the trailer for 99 Homes I was intrigued because I expected that it would cover not only the numbers of the U.S. housing market crash, but the on-the-ground stories we haven’t heard because there were simply too many foreclosures at the time—not to mention that the foreclosure crisis was being drowned out by the greater economic crisis going on in the U.S. around 2009 and 2010.

The Florida foreclosure crisis is still ongoing in 2015 while the rest of the country recovers, so I think Bahrani is telling an important story of our time. From his NPR interview, Bahrani said he spent a lot of time in Florida with families, real- estate brokers, foreclosure attorneys while researching the script. He also said what he saw in Florida was actually worse than what he portrayed in the film. So I think part of that fueled the documentary-like scenes. I think the trailer does a really good job presenting it as a tragic thriller based on true economic events.

White: Agreed. I think the movie’s biggest strength is its ability to humanize the tragedy of losing your home. The smaller vignettes show glimpses of homeowners on the cusp of losing their homes, then either being evicted or feeling forced to give them up for paltry sums of money. It resembles watching people go through the stages of grief. The ones that hit me the hardest were the eviction of an elderly man who clearly has no place to go, and the family where the mother doesn’t speak English, and her son has to translate the news that they are being pushed out of their home.

But I also thought that telling the story through these families felt a bit flawed at times. The film centers around Nash, a young father and construction worker having a difficult time finding work, and struggling to keep a roof over the heads of his mother and his son. The only other stories that get fleshed out are of similar, somewhat middle-class white families, who are also losing their homes. When Nash and his family arrive at a motel after being evicted, one of the first thing Nash says about his fellow motel-residents, many of whom are shown to be minorities, is, “They’re not like us.”

Lam: At the beginning of the film, just before the motel scene, I found it striking that Nash’s family was somewhere between hoping for the best and denial. After losing in court, Nash and mother agree that they have 30 days before they get kicked out. As a person who abhors reading through my health-insurance terms, just watching the mortgage and eviction paperwork in the movie was frustrating and I really felt for them. How are families supposed to know what’s happening? But the movie portrays most of these families, at least at the beginning of the movie, as being in total denial that an eviction was a possibility. And I question how realistic that is.

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.