99 Homes and Beasts of No Nation

Two movies to make us care, again

Movie intensity has ratcheted tighter in recent weeks as Oscar time approaches. Since Hollywood leans heavily on franchising and remakes to make bank, we’re lucky there are still incentives to make movies that balance the bombast, films with no chance of winding up on novelty T-shirts. Two recent releases—99 Homes and Beasts of No Nation—are classic award-season fodder, though Homes is a quiet film and will probably not get much attention come February. However, both topics (the recent foreclosure crisis and child soldiering in Africa) are the kind of thing we grow numb to in the news, and sometimes it takes a gut-wrenching film to make us think more deeply about the worst parts of human behavior.

Both topics—the recent foreclosure crisis and child soldiering in Africa—are the kind of thing we grow numb to in the news, and sometimes it takes a gut-wrenching film to make us think more deeply about the worst parts of human behavior.

Set in 2010, 99 Homes is about a single father who mortgaged his family home to invest in his contracting business, only to lose everything in the housing bust. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a twig in a churning rapid of judges, banks, and eviction officers until desperation leads him to accept work from Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the very man who evicted him from his home.

The foreclosure process is by its very nature a topsy-turvy world. No one has sympathy for the side enforcing the debtor-lender contract, while the victims—the breadwinner who lost her job, the immigrant who didn’t understand the terms, the elderly man with nowhere to turn—have heartbreaking stories but ultimately very little legal standing. Following Carver’s lead, Nash discovers the agonies of life on the other side of the eviction notice, as well as the money to be made in the process. Unfortunately, the choices he makes along the way—the little moral compromises he makes, first to regain his family home for his son and mother, and later to earn more money than he ever dreamed he could own—turn a gray situation to a mud-slicked morass. Viewers alternately judge and empathize with him—what would I have done in his situation? Are there really victims in the process, or are there just winners and losers?

Michael Shannon’s Carver is the kind of enigmatic villain film buffs love to examine. He’s ruthless and yet human, flawed, and wise. Carver’s hallmark line to Nash encapsulates both what led American dreamers astray before the housing bubble burst, and what the predatory institutions fed on to encourage them down that path: “Don’t get emotional about real estate. Houses are boxes. Some boxes are big; some boxes are small. That’s it.” But that isn’t all of it, as another character points out—a home also represents a sense of community and security. The beauty of 99 Homes is that it doesn’t take sides—and that’s just the sort of grown-up treatment needed for an issue as far-reaching and complex as the foreclosure crisis.

Beasts of No Nation is a far less nuanced film, because its topic is as starkly evil as you can get—the impressment of children into the army. Some of its buzz comes from its distribution company, Netflix, releasing the film simultaneously to theaters and its online streaming service, leading to a boycott by the four largest theater chains. Business gamble aside, Beasts deserves attention in its own right.

Featuring a cast of mostly African actors, and lead by British star Idris Elba, the film focuses on Agu, a boy living happily in the buffer zone of an unnamed West African country. When one faction of the civil war sweeps through the buffer zone, his mother and younger siblings are forced to flee. Agu must stay behind, and only barely escapes slaughter alongside his father and elder brother by vanishing into the jungle. There, he’s captured by another faction, led by a charismatic man known as the Commandant (Elba). Viewers are forced to watch Agu’s relentless transformation from a playful, imaginative boy to maliciously brutal soldier.

Agu’s voiceovers to God, and later his lost mother, chronicle the abject confusion and loss of hope. That his experiences are fictional doesn’t dilute their impact; every day his story is played out thousands of times in real-world warfare. After all, there is nothing like a child soldier—endlessly loyal, immortally brave, with an underdeveloped sense of empathy and morality that is easy to stamp out with brainwashing and speechifying. The Commandant positions himself as a father figure to this colony of lost boys and men, a powerfully effective method. The human cost of war, corruption, and greed shines in Agu’s old-before-his-time eyes. The movie strives to inject some hope in his story, but it is fragile indeed.

99 Homes is rated R for language, including some sexual references, and a brief, violent image.

Beasts of No Nation is rated R for disturbing, graphic war violence, drug use, some nudity, and language, including some sexual references—all involving child soldiers.