Director Rahmin Bahrini along with veteran director/screenwriter Amir Naderi have obviously done a great deal of research in crafting this gripping meditation on the foreclosure crisis which continues to affect thousands of beleaguered homeowners in America today.
Michael Shannon steals the show as the Machiavellian realtor, Rick Carver, who found it more profitable to get involved with flipping foreclosed properties than selling ordinary real estate at the height of financial crisis in 2007. Set in Orlando around 2010, we first met Carver standing outside of a foreclosed property with sheriffs about to evict a homeowner unable to keep up with his mortgage payments. When it’s discovered that the homeowner has killed himself, Carver callously expresses no sympathy for the man who just committed suicide.
The plot breaks into Act 2 when Carver evicts our protagonist, Dennis Nash, a laid-off construction worker who lives in his modest home with his mother (Laura Dern) and young son. The entire scene (variations of which repeat time and again) appears to be based on true events. Nash begs that he needs more time and that his lawyer is in the process of resolving all the problems. Carver and the sheriffs will only give them a few minutes to get a hold of their most valuable possessions and put the rest of the home’s contents on the front lawn.
Nash and his family are forced to move into a seedy motel and it’s there that he discovers some of his construction tools are missing. He gets into a confrontation with Carver’s work crew at Carver’s office, accusing them of stealing the tools. Carver is impressed by Nash standing his ground and hires him as his new assistant. Nash’s “Faustian bargain” with Carver is the vehicle which allows us to view the tragedy of foreclosure victims and the shady practices of people like Carver.
Carver allows Nash to strip houses of fixtures and appliances and install them in houses that he’s gained possession of, making a big profit. Carver buys additional appliances from a hedge fund manager who’s soon to be evicted, and re-sells them to the government at an exorbitant rate.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the film are the glimpses we get of foreclosure victims, all with slightly different situations which prove fascinating. One heartbreaking victim appears to be almost senile and is completely unaware that eviction proceedings have been instituted. Another man threatens Nash with a firearm and tells him to gets off his property immediately. Others take Carver’s “Cash for Keys” offer where the homeowner accepts $3,500 cash in exchange for keeping the house in good order until turning it over on eviction day (in an early scene, Nash must clean up a house that the homeowner intentionally sabotaged by allowing the toilet to back up).
After Carver agrees to sell Nash’s old house back to him, Nash feels pressure to get out of the motel as soon as possible, since he’s being threatened by a man he was responsible for evicting earlier. Nash sells his old home, much to the chagrin of his mother and son, who leave him after he shows them a much more luxurious place he’s purchased.
The climax proves a tad bit melodramatic as a foreclosure victim’s court case threatens to sabotage one of Carver’s multi-million dollar real estate deals. Carver forces Nash to deliver a forged document to the court where Nash’s former acquaintance, with whom he used to be on good terms with, loses his home.
The man subsequently shoots off his rifle as Nash and the sheriffs appear at his home, attempting to evict him. I’m not exactly sure that Nash’s sudden change of heart due to his guilt feelings over his deal with the devil–and his mother and son’s negative reaction to selling the old family–is completely believable, but I suppose the film’s scenarists felt that Nash needed some kind of punishment for the Faustian bargain he made with Carver.
Carver’s outright illegal move at film’s end, along with his overall shady activities, don’t necessarily undermine some of the earlier arguments we hear from him, legitimating his machinations. After all, the homeowners ultimately are responsible for keeping up with payments on their homes. The bigger picture of course is that many of these foreclosure victims bore the brunt of the financial crisis and were unable to get themselves back on their feet. Bahrini must be commended not only for educating the public about what the foreclosure crisis is all about, but also for keeping us thoroughly entertained.