House of Sand and Fog is an exceptionally well-done dark psychological thriller about the battle over a piece of property between a woman scrambling to reassemble the shards of her once-secure life and a man desperate to provide his family a fitting sanctuary in their adopted homeland. With noirish trappings and a classic tragic sensibility, the production is both moving and thought provoking.
Jennifer Connelly: neither a heroine nor a villain
First feature director Vadim Perelman co-wrote the screenplay with Shawn Lawrence Otto, based on the best-selling novel by Andre Dubus III. The film works because Perelman is smart enough to let it proceed at its own pace; slowly, deliberately, events proceed towards a climax that leaves viewers with much to mull over and discuss after the closing credits roll. The experience is aided immeasurably from top notch cinematography by Roger Deakins (The Man Who Wasn’t There, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Kundun, Fargo and The Shawshank Redemption), editing by Lisa Zeno Churgin (The Cider House Rules and Dead Man Walking) and music by James Horner (A Beautiful Mind, Titanic and many, many more). Oh, and then there’s the cast. Jennifer Connelly, fresh from her triumph in A Beautiful Mind, co-stars with the legendary Sir Ben Kingsley, with striking support from the remarkably versatile Ron Eldard and Shohreh Aghdashloo, respected for 25 years of work in theater and film on the international stage. What an ensemble! It all revolves around a run-down bungalow in Southern California. For recovering alcoholic Kathy Nicolo (Connelly), it is her only remaining link to all that she has lost. After her husband split, she fell into a deep depression. While somehow managing not to retreat into the bottle, she is crippled by sorrow, inhabiting the house like a ghost as unopened bills pile up. She has hidden her plight from her family and sinks even deeper into sadness upon learning that her mother is planning a visit. She receives a massive blow when officers show up to evict her from the house for non-payment of a county business tax assessed to the property. In short order, she finds herself on the street. Her only help comes from Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon (Eldard), who takes the stunned woman under his wing, allowing her to collect some belongings and getting her a room at a small motel. While Kathy licks her wounds, Massoud Amir Behrani (Kingsley) purchases the house at auction for a fraction of its worth. Once a colonel in the Iranian Air Force, Behrani leaves his wife, Nadi (Aghdashloo), and son, Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout), each day attired in a natty suit, only to change clothes at a locker for work at his two menial jobs. Finally able to get his family out of their cramped apartment, he immediately uses most of his remaining savings to build a widow’s walk on the upper front of the building, creating an ocean view and upping the value of the place significantly. In time, he will make more improvements, leading to the day when he can relocate his family to a home as grand as the one they were forced to flee in Iran. When Kathy finally breaks out of her funk long enough to investigate, she learns that the authorities had no legal right to seize and sell her home. Ah, but what to do? The house Behrani owns is now worth far more than the one Kathy lost. Even if he were willing to sell, she could not afford the difference between what he paid for it and what it is currently worth. One house. Two people with highly arguable claims to it. Uh-oh. There are times in the film when you will agree with Kathy and times when you will agree with Behrani. There are also times when you will shake your head at errors in judgment made by each. Neither is a hero or villain, though both are repeatedly tripped up by pride. House of Sand and Fog can be read many ways. I’ll spare you my interpretations, while suggesting that, at some point in your discussion of the film, you try viewing Kathy and Lester as America and Behrani and his family as the Middle East. That ought to spice up the conversation. Regardless of how the text is taken, House of Sand and Fog is an impeccably acted, beautifully presented tragedy. Some critics have faulted the ending of the film, claiming that it goes over the top. My belief is that, after what we see and hear from the principal characters, any number of climaxes, including the one we witness, would be credible. Add that to the list of things to talk about during the drive to your home.