By Abby Olcese 10-13-2015

How do we measure our success? Matthew 6:19-21 warns us against putting our store in earthly things, which are temporary, but American capitalist culture informs us that the stuff we have — the size, the quality, and how much of it we can afford — is what determines our own worth. As Christians, we try to focus on serving God and loving our neighbors, but often it’s a moment of crisis that reveals where our values truly lie.

The film 99 Homes doesn’t include overtly religious elements, but it features that same battle at the heart of its story, a deal-with-the-devil tale set in 2010, two years after the 2008 housing market crash. Writer-director Ramin Bahrani presents the film in an unstylized, utterly human way that explores this question from a dire perspective: how people react when everything they’ve worked hard to earn is yanked away, and they must suddenly re-evaluate their own measures of success.

The film tells the story of Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a single father working construction to support his mother (Laura Dern) and young son. Dennis’ house is foreclosed on by the bank, and the film’s devil, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), is the real-estate broker who evicts Dennis and his family. Out of a job and desperate to get his home back, Dennis starts working for Rick, first doing maintenance on his properties, then stealing appliances from foreclosed homes to sell, and finally joining his boss in evicting homeowners.

Through Dennis, and those he encounters, we repeatedly see the shock and pain that comes with suddenly losing everything. Bahrani achieves a feeling of authenticity here that puts audiences in the shoes of these victims of the economy. Like Dennis, many were unwittingly part of a flawed system that hit them the hardest when it failed.

99 Homes isn’t just about tales of economic hardship, however. It’s mostly a story about Dennis trying to retain his humanity while working for the morally corrupt Carver. As played by Shannon, Carver is a much less subtle character. He’s an opportunist who’s given up his morals in order to retain a materialist lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle that is, in Dennis’ traditional understanding of success, intoxicatingly attractive.

The film’s goal is to show relatable, otherwise normal people forced to grapple with inner troubles that most of us choose to ignore. For the most part, it achieves this. However, 99 Homes doesn’t do as great a job at showing the diversity of the people who were hit by the recession. The film is set in Orlando, Florida, a city where almost half the population is made up of people of color. However, the main characters are all white. It’s hard to shake the feeling that this was a choice made because someone (perhaps Bahrani or the film’s producers) felt that the only way to get white people to care about the subject was to show other white people in crisis. It’s a major misstep that hangs over an otherwise-profound movie.

99 Homes asks us, like Dennis, to reconsider what success really looks like. Choosing to serve what is tangible may make more immediate sense, but it leads to compromising our morals, and often betraying the people we love while telling ourselves that we’re doing it for good reasons. And the film, like Matthew 6, reminds us that nothing on Earth, not even the house we live in, is permanent.

Abby Olcese is a freelance film critic and writer based in Kansas. You can find her on Twitter @indieabby88.

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