House of Sand and Fog (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

What happens when the so-called American Dream - a life of financial independence and home ownership - turns into the American Nightmare? For some, a house is just a place to stop and rest at night. For others, it's an investment - a means to build for the future with an eye to retirement. For still others, it's a place of refuge, comfort, and familiarity. And for a few, it's much more than any of those things - it's a key to identity and a link to the past. The dilemma faced by the characters in Vadim Perelman's stunning feature debut is that a small, semi-isolated Pacific county bungalow is a lot more than just bricks and mortar to all of them.

Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) is a recovering drug addict who has recently been dumped by her husband and left to fend for herself. All she has in the world is the house left to her by her father when he died, and now that is being taken away. A bureaucratic snafu has resulted in her being held liable for unpaid taxes that she doesn't owe. The county evicts her from her house and puts it up for auction. Things happen so quickly that she doesn't have time to hire a lawyer before the property has been sold at a fraction of the going market rate.

The buyer is Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an immigrant who moved to the United States a number of years ago with his wife, Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo), and his son, Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout). In his native Iran, Massoud was a high-profile air force colonel who personally knew the Shah. But, when the ruler was deposed, Massoud was forced to flee for his life. He ended up in California, eking out an existence, working two menial jobs to make ends meet. Buying Kathy's house gives him an opportunity to plan for the future. By making some improvements and re-selling it at market value, he can raise the cash to buy another house and have enough left over to fund his son's college education.

The problem is, of course, that Massoud's opportunity comes at Kathy's expense. As far as he's concerned, he has legally purchased the house and is guilty of nothing other than trying to make a better life for his family. Kathy, however, has lost all that matters to her. She views Massoud as a thief and calls him that to his face. She finds comfort in the person of a sympathetic police offer, Lester Burton (Ron Eldard), who chooses to help her by harassing Massoud and threatening his family. Instead of resolving matters, this deepens the tensions.

This is a story in which no one (except perhaps the faceless county) is to blame. Kathy has done nothing wrong. She is the victim of an unforgiving government that takes too long to acknowledge its mistakes. Likewise, Massoud has not violated either the spirit or the letter of the law. His purchase of the house is done legally and properly, and he has legitimate reasons for not giving it up. The fault in both of these characters lies in their unwillingness to see matters from the other side, and, because their passions run so high, they act in ways they later regret.

House of Sand and Fog goes to great pains to impart a balanced portrayal. Neither protagonist is lionized or demonized. Both sides are presented sympathetically, and the characters are developed as real people, with all the virtues and faults one might expect in these circumstances. And, as the story unfolds, the house becomes not just a battleground between two people divided by an unsolvable ethical situation, but a struggle between two cultures - the natural-born citizen who is losing the last vestiges of her dream and the immigrant who is struggling to get a grip on his own. However, as titanic as that symbolic battle may be, Perelman never loses sight of the characters at the center of the tragic maelstrom.

It is easy enough to mistake House of Sand and Fog for a thriller. However, while there are certain elements of a genre film in the movie, it is far too complex to allow simple classification. Based on the best-selling novel by Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog has been praised by the author for its faithfulness to the text and its ability to bring out some of the more demanding themes. The movie draws upon a vast wellspring of human emotion, and it's somewhat remarkable to consider that this is Perelman's first picture. (His background is in TV commercials.) All of the supporting work is of the highest notch, from Roger Deakins' crisp, non-showy cinematography to James Horner's surprisingly understated score.

Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley, both of whom have won Oscars (her for A Beautiful Mind; him for Ghandi), stand a chance to be up for more statuettes this year. Their performances are raw and electric. Connelly's Kathy seems to be an extension of the part she played so memorably in Requiem for a Dream - someone who has survived addiction, but not without suffering a great deal of damage. The actress presents Kathy as a deeply wounded bird, but one who is still capable of fighting. Kingsley develops Massoud as a deeply proud man who is quick to anger but will do almost anything for his family. Both actors have scenes that are likely to move many movie-goers to tears.

The supporting cast is top-notch, and features a number of faces that will be unfamiliar to mainstream audiences. Ron Eldard plays Lester, the police officer who starts out as Kathy's protector before becoming her lover. A character actor who will look slightly familiar to many who see him in this part, Eldard has been in films like Black Hawk Down and Deep Impact. Shohreh Aghdashloo, whose Nadi attempts to mediate the dispute between her husband and Kathy, began her acting career in Iran before emigrating in 1978. Since then, she has appeared in several films, but has mostly worked in plays. 14-year old Jonathan Ahdout, as Esmail, is making his first feature film appearance.

I love movies in which there are no easy answers, where the circumstances demand that, in the end, someone will end up broken. The rhythms of the film are such that I did not see where it was going. My allegiance - to the degree that one was formed - switched regularly. This is a hard, challenging motion picture. It demands much from the audience, and repays that investment with powerful, engrossing drama that does not offer insulting, facile answers. House of Sand and Fog is gripping and unforgettable, one of the best movies of 2003.

House of Sand and Fog (United States, 2003)

Ranked #6 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2003
Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 2003-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1