If you have not yet seen the powerful new film 99 Homes and want to be surprised how it all turns out at the end, you might want to stop reading this now, because I am about to spoil the ending for you! So, again, SPOILER ALERT!
For those of you who don’t care about the ending, plan to never see the film, or (hopefully) have already seen it, read on.
Let me start off by saying that I loved the movie. I highly recommend seeing it, especially if you or someone you know has been a victim of foreclosure fraud. I thought the performances were great, the plot was totally believable, the suspense was unbearable at times. and so on.
The story is basically this (and this much can be gleaned from the trailers): a down-on-his-luck construction worker in Florida—Dennis Nash, played by Andrew Garfield–loses his modest home to foreclosure. He lives there with his mother and his son. They are evicted from said house by a seedy real estate agent—Rick Carver, played by Michael Shannon–and two cops the day after a judge has ruled that Nash has 30 days to appeal his final judgment of foreclosure (this time frame is not an entirely accurate general representation of how things worked in Florida, according to this article).
The eviction is harrowing to watch, as Nash and his family are given two minutes to get their personal belongings out of the house and told they no longer own the house and are in fact breaking the law—trespassing—by being in the house. Carver has a crew that then removes all of the Nash family’s personal belongings from the house and just sets them down next to the street. Nash and family are now homeless, the locks to their house having been changed in this vile process, threats of jail if they “trespass,” no acknowledgment of the ongoing legal process, etc.
An understandably desperate Nash ultimately ends up working for Carver, first as a low-level employee, then as Carver’s right-hand man. Don’t want to spoil any more than absolutely necessary for the point I’m trying to make, so go see the movie to see how Nash gets sucked into violating the Golden Rule (by doing unto others what he didn’t want done to him).
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!
It is in Nash’s capacity as Carver’s right-hand man that we see him perform an act that is at the heart of the foreclosure fraud. Specifically, we learn that a homeowner facing foreclosure that knows Nash has successfully challenged his foreclosure in court and is on the verge of winning his case and saving his home because the bank failed to file an important document which should have been filed years before the foreclosure.
Carver is aware of this and tasks Nash with delivering a forged and backdated version of this document (typical bank behavior in foreclosure cases) to the courthouse on the morning of the final hearing in this case. If Nash delivers the document, his homeowner friend will lose his case. If Nash doesn’t deliver the fraudulent document, his friend will win his case, but a very lucrative business deal between Carver and a real estate developer will fall through.
Long story short, Nash is shown agonizing over what to do—file it and screw the guy over, or don’t file it and screw himself over. Nash is then shown apparently leaving the courthouse without filing the document, but he is stopped by a court official who is privy to the situation, and the official snatches the document from Nash and takes it away to be filed. We then see Nash’s friend lose his case because of the fraudulent document (a typical outcome in a foreclosure case).
Cut to the eviction of Nash’s friend, which Nash is scheduled to conduct. The cops and the eviction crew are all there, but the homeowner is home with his family and everyone is concerned that this will be a messy eviction. And it turns out that it is, because the homeowner breaks his front windows with a rifle and fires on the cops. He says he knows that fraud went on in his case and that despite that (because of that?) the house is rightfully and legally his. Nash and Carver are of course keenly aware of this, and we again see Nash, ducking for cover with Carver behind an SUV, agonizing over what is happening.
Backup officers arrive and train their guns on the cheated homeowner. It looks like the cops are about to forcibly evict the homeowner, but Nash cries out and goes and stands in between the homeowner and the cops with his hands up.
Here’s the letting the banks off the hook part
So we’re wondering, is Nash going to ‘fess up? What’s he doing? How is this going to end? Well, Nash does in fact ‘fess up. He tells his homeowner friend, in front of everyone there—cops, neighbors, Carver, the eviction crew, and so on—“I cheated you.” Nash then goes on to explain that he filed the fraudulent document which caused the homeowner to loses his case, which led to this eviction standoff. Having heard this confession, the homeowner puts down his weapon, surrenders and is arrested. Carver is seen being questioned by some men in suits, and Nash is escorted to the backseat of a car by men in suits, presumably FBI or some such. Presumably the cheated homeowner gets to keep his home, which was one of a package of 100 homes that Carver was trying to get in a deal, but he lost this one, so he only got 99, hence the title of the movie. The end.
And so the banks are let off the hook.
How so, you ask? Because of those three simple words of that the movie puts in Nash’s mouth: “I cheated you.” It wasn’t the banks that cheated the would-be winner in court, it was Nash. The movie puts the onus of the cheating on an individual. Not the system. Not the banks. The blame is put on one desperate guy trying to save his own house and family. We never hear the banks or the system blamed for the fraud.
The message of the movie then effectively becomes: the greedy, conniving, soulless people caused the foreclosure crisis, not the banks. In fact, throughout the movie, we never hear from or see any bank or any representative of a bank. The few times banks do come up, the sense is given that banks are distant, mostly clueless, and easily bilked for money (as in Carver’s cash-for-keys theft scheme).
Indeed, when one thinks about it, the theme of the movie is essentially that, at street level, man-to-man, person-to-person, the law of the jungle prevails. Kill or be killed. That people will sell each other out willingly. Look how Nash was evicted by Carver and then immediately starts working for him, eventually performing evictions. We even get to hear Carver’s justification for getting into the evictions game, and it’s the same thing—there will be losers in this game, and I will not be one of them, even if I have to defraud the banks, the courts, and the homeowners. Paraphrasing Carver, he says that America has always bailed out the winners and always will bail out the winners. The system is rigged by the winners for the winners, so you just have to make sure that by any means necessary, you are a winner. Here’s a clip of Carver’s justification:
But this isn’t a story about the banks…(c’mon, really?)
Some might argue that this particular story isn’t about the banks. It’s about the human condition. As such, an indictment of the banks isn’t really part of it and indicting the banks would’ve made the movie ring false.
I suppose such a viewpoint is not without some validity, but to me, it was a disappointment, a big disappointment, to have the blame laid at the feet of the hapless Nash instead of the banks who designed and executed the entire scam. And honestly, it wasn’t a disappointment at the time. It wasn’t until I started thinking about it later that I realized Nash was being made the scapegoat, when all he did was act as the minion of the bank. Or it was a disappointment I couldn’t quite put my finger on immediately after seeing the film. As we walked out of the theater, my wife and I discussed the fact that unlike the movie, no one in real life admits that this cheating is going on. An admission like Nash’s never happens. And so it was immediately disappointing in that respect, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that the banks were let off the hook in this movie.
Go see it anyway
I still would encourage people to see the movie. Again, it had some great performances and touched on most of the major foreclosure fraud issues. And it serves the wonderful and vital purpose of showing the world the human toll this fraud takes—how it renders people homeless, destroys their lives, turns them against each other. Many people don’t have the patience to hear about these issues from the news or even from their family or friends who might have been affected by the foreclosure fraud. But put in a fictionalized movie that someone can kill an hour and half with, such people might begin to understand a little bit more.
What I’m pointing out here is not so much an indictment of the movie, or Hollywood, or the writer. I don’t think this was any grand conspiracy to make a movie that appears to be sympathetic to homeowners but ultimately places the blame on said homeowners. In fact, now that I think about it, having Nash take the fall instead of the banks is actually quite realistic, since that is what happens in real life. The banks and the brokers and all the higher-up are given deferred prosecution agreements and settlements, if it ever even goes that far. The bankers don’t go to jail. Instead, it is the people, the small fries, the henchmen like Nash are hung out to dry and are made to suffer. In that sense, it’s a really good conclusion to have Nash be the fall guy.
But I just want to make sure that no one watches this movie and forgets that it was and is the banks that are responsible for all of this. The banks are the ones who are cheating and defrauding us, but they of course want the courts and the public to think it is us who are cheating them.
Not so, good people. Not so.