It’s been a rough few years for Andrew Garfield, professionally speaking. After a slate of small but well-regarded roles, mostly in British indies (notably Boy A and the Red Riding trilogy, but let’s not forget that time he had a horrible Southern accent in Doctor Who), 2010 was his breakout year, with appearances in The Social Network and Never Let Me Go. The Social Network was the higher-profile film, and the one that properly introduced Garfield to the world, but his work in the weepier Never Let Me Go was equally promising, showing a different side to the up-and-coming actor.
The time had come for Garfield to tick the “superhero” box on his “hot young actor” bingo card, and he went with Spider-Man, teaming up with (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb for a pair of web-slinging action movies that really, really did not deserve him or co-star Emma Stone. And then, this year, Sony announced they were teaming up with Marvel-Disney to reboot the franchise, giving Garfield the old heave-ho in the process and starting over with next-generation It Boy Tom Holland. What made the whole thing even worse is that Garfield’s a hardcore Spidey-fan who, we know from recent statements, appears to feel partially responsible for the failure of The Amazing Spider-Man and its 2014 sequel, even though his take on Peter Parker was one of a small handful of genuinely good things about those movies.
Being, obvious exception aside, a pretty selective actor (as in “fairly selective,” but also “he’s selective and he sure is pretty”), the Spider-Man movies are the only movies Garfield has done since The Social Network and Never Let Me Go five years ago. (He was also nominated for one of them Tony things.) Now, three years after originally losing the superhero lottery, he’s back in a movie that doesn’t suck: 99 Homes, a real estate thriller (it’s more interesting than it sounds) by Ramin Bahrani.
Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a Florida construction worker whose ability to provide for his mother (Laura Dern) and young son (Noah Lomax) hits the skids when the subprime mortgage crisis means people aren’t building quite so many homes as they used to. A victim of predatory lending himself, Nash loses his house to real estate broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon, who’s had his own bad luck with superhero movies), who swans around Florida making money off submitting fraudulent insurance claims, bilking people out of their homes, and just generally being a huge dick. With his family now living in a motel, Dennis sees no other option but to begin working as Rick’s right-hand man. At first, it’s a pretty sweet gig—Rick is a self-interested jackass, sure, but the man knows how to exploit the system, and Dennis is more than willing to cash checks earned at the expense of The Man. Eventually, though, as countless gangster movies have taught us, Dennis is required to do some things he’s not proud of, and he’s faced with the decision as to whether he should give up his new life if it means regaining his moral integrity.
For all that real estate doesn’t seem to be a particularly zippy topic, 99 Homes plays out like a moral thriller, with the stakes constantly ratcheting higher and higher. You know Dennis should get out, but his situation changes so gradually that you can’t really pinpoint the exact moment when he should have cut and run, when the fact that he’s trying to provide for his destitute family isn’t a good enough justification for what he’s doing. It’s a meaty role, and Garfield pours every bit of acting talent that the Spider-Man movies didn’t require from him into it.
Shannon is excellent as a scary-yet-charismatic motherfucker who effortlessly draws Dennis into his orbit—like you had any doubts? Please. Scary-yet-charismatic is Michael Shannon’s entire thing. And, while 99 Homes is really Dennis and Rick’s story, Laura Dern has a couple of meaty scenes as well. God, she’s good. Maybe one day I’ll be able to tell her and Laura Linney apart.
Guess who else shows up in 99 Homes? Clancy Brown is who! He plays a lawyer swallowing up vast swaths of foreclosed homes, which means he’s playing someone slightly more evil than Kurgan from Highlander.
Garfield’s post-Spider-Man career appears to be shaping up well; upcoming projects include a Martin Scorsese movie about Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan (no, the other one isn’t Leonardo DiCaprio) and… a Mel Gibson-directed movie co-starring Sam Worthington and Vince Vaughn…
…but hey, 99 Homes is a good start, right? Let’s keep it up, buddy.