Greetings again from the darkness. Thumping music, the aftermath of a suicide, and an arrogant and immediately dislikable real estate agent fill the screen in a tension-packed opening sequence. This is how writer/director Ramin Bahrani begins our descent back to 2010 during the severe housing and economic crash. While the foundation of the story is the “system” that screwed over so many homeowners, it’s really more a tale of morality and how we react during desperate times.
Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a skilled construction worker scrounging for jobs as he tries hard to make ends meet in the house-building industry so devastated by the economy. He lives in his childhood home with his mom (Laura Dern) and his young son. In an attempt to stave off foreclosure, Dennis goes to court pleading his case. See, he received contradictory instructions from his bank, and he ends up on the wrong end of the bailout. Watching a family getting booted from their home is excruciatingly emotional, and we empathize with the anger, frustration and helplessness of Dennis as realtor Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) and the Sheriff’s department execute the eviction.
In an odd turn of events, Dennis ends up working for Carver and quickly becomes addicted to the money. As Carver pulls him deeper into his scheme of bilking the banks and government agencies, Dennis rationalizes with the knowledge that he is providing for his family and on track to get his family house back. Watching Garfield’s emotionally vulnerable character interact with Shannon’s brutal businessman is pretty fascinating. It’s a bit Faustian as Dennis basically sells his soul to the devil (Carver), though he continually struggles with the moral issues until the final act … where the true line in the Florida sand is drawn.
Garfield makes the acting transition to adult in a fine turn, but it’s Shannon’s creepy Realtor who dominates the picture. From the beginning, we don’t like him – but we find ourselves better understanding his motivations after we finally get his personal explanation. The film does a nice job pointing out all parties who are somewhat responsible for the horrific housing downturn, and does so without sermonizing on the evils of big banks. In fact, it could be taken as a reminder that the “system” so many love to bash is actually made up of individuals who, in the words of Rick Carver, have learned to go “numb” rather than show emotion or respect. It’s a tough movie to watch, but a needed reminder of the importance of humanity during desperate times.