One definite sign of a great actor: he or she can out-super the superhero.
In the Iron Man movies, for instance, the best parts are when Robert Downey, Jr.'s exuding slickness and charisma as Tony Stark, without the metallic suit. The same goes for the two recent Spider-Man films, in which Andrew Garfield makes you care deeply for Peter Parker and engages in the strongest and most affecting guy/girl on-screen chemistry in any superhero movie with co-star, and real-life girlfriend, Emma Stone. That's because, outside of Spidey, Garfield has always had the potential to be the twenty-something generation's greatest talent, the Leonardo DiCaprio rising high above his age group's answers to Ryan Gosling and Tobey Maguire.
Since both The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 land on the backend of recent comic book movie rankings, though, and because those movies are bloated and distracted CGI spectacles, Garfield's yet to receive the admiration he deserves. People forget that he's just as good, despite the lack of awards season support in 2010, as Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network. And that he's one excellent piece in the altogether devastating and shamefully slept-on dystopian tearjerker Never Let Me Go. They act like the three-part British miniseries Red Riding doesn't exist, therefore never acknowledging that Garfield acts his lanky English ass off in all 295 minutes.
Those Garfield ignorers will soon get one viciously forceful wake-up slap to their faces. The slaps will arrive whenever Garfield's new indie drama 99 Homes—which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last week and is currently screening here at the Toronto International Film Festival—lands distribution and opens in theaters nationwide. He gives the heaviest and all-around best performance of career in it. He somehow manages to pull off the seemingly herculean task of outshining Michael Shannon. He's so damn impressive in director/co-writer Ramin Behrani's socially relevant though unsubtle film that he transcends its occasionally frustrating lapses into sledgehammer-to-the-skull preaching and melodrama.
Garfield's character is Dennis Nash, a blue-collar construction worker and single father living in the Orlando area of Florida with his mother (Laura Dern) and young son (Noah Lomax). Unable to find consistent paying work, Dennis can't stop the bank from possessing his home and sending slimy realtor Rich Carver (Michael Shannon) to his front doorstep to evict he and his family. Through some extenuating circumstances, Carver takes a liking to Dennis and offers him a job handling the physical aspects of Carver's real estate power-wielding. Eventually, Dennis' role in Carver's operation grows into one requiring slacks and button-ups instead of tool belts, and before long, Dennis is kicking people out of their homes himself and helping Carver rip off the government. The whole time, though, Dennis' desperate transformation into the insensitive monster he once hated eats away at him. He hides his new gig from his family and the neighbors he's gained by moving into a rundown motel room. But those $6,000-$60,000 paychecks speak for themselves.
As the arrogant and manipulative Carver, Michael Shannon is, as expected, phenomenal, playing the film's villain as a sort of Gordon Gekko by way of Lucifer in finely tailored suits. But this is Garfield's show.
The film's opening shot finds Carver at the scene of a suicide, him glancing into the bathroom where an evictee has just blown his brains out while sitting on the toilet. It's Bahrani's way of establishing 99 Homes' not-fucking-around attitude—it's a straightforward descent into darkness that, thank god, is without any love interests for Garfield's character or other plot distractions. 99 Homes sticks to Dennis' soul-selling arc and rides it directly into the abyss. The scene where Carver and his police officer cronies push Dennis, his mother, and son out of their lifelong house is by far the most intense thing I've seen at TIFF, if not all year, and the sequence's white-knuckle energy derives right from Garfield's explosive despair and helplessness. He carries that severity all throughout 99 Homes, right down to the film's problematic conclusion, a final stretch of tension that almost feels maddeningly excessive.
There's an overwhelming pain in Garfield's eyes in every scene—he lets you see that Dennis knows he's heading down a road to moral destruction, that he's weighing every scumbag act he's asked to do as if his life depends on it. It's a performance that'd maintain its impact even if 99 Homes were a silent film. You realize that, in light of 99 Homes, the worst possible thing Garfield could do to his career moving forward is to keep hiding those eyes behind that Spider-Man mask.
For more of Complex Pop Culture’s coverage of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, click here.