The House of Sand and Fog (December 18/03)
"Things are not as they appear."
It's a line spoken by Ben Kingsley near the start of The House of Sand and Fog, and it's a theme that's echoed throughout the film. Based on the novel by Andre Dubus III, the movie uses a subject that's not exactly an enthralling one - two characters fight over a house - and uses it as a jumping off point for a searing drama.
Kingsley stars as Massoud Amir Behrani, formerly a Colonel with the Iranian army - now living in America with his wife and son, and forced to work two menial jobs just to make ends meet. His luck begins to change, though, after he notices that an old summer house that his family lived in is going up for auction. He buys it for a ridiculously low sum, planning to upgrade it and sell it for much more than he paid. What he doesn't realize is that the house's former owner, a woman named Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), was wrongfully evicted and has begun taking steps to get her home back.
The House of Sand and Fog marks Vadim Perelman's directorial debut, and it's clear that he's got a real future ahead of him. Though he cut his teeth in the world of music videos, Perelman shows no apprehension in taking his time setting up this story. It's a good half hour before it becomes even remotely obvious where any of this is going, and by that point, the characters have been developed to the point where we're equally invested in both sides.
And that's really what makes the movie as intriguing as it is. It's easy enough to see why Massoud is doing what he's doing, and likewise for Kathy. Neither has been given the information that we have, so both is under the assumption that the other is wrong (Kathy believes that Massoud is a cold-hearted and wealthy foreigner, while Massoud thinks that Kathy is getting exactly what she deserves for not paying her taxes). Even the most outwardly vicious character, a cop that Kathy's just started dating (played by Ron Eldard), has his reasons for doing what he does; viewing the situation through his point-of-view, it's impossible to say that we wouldn't have done exactly the same thing.
The complexity of the screenplay (written by Perelman and Shawn Otto) requires the audience to constantly shift their allegiances, something that's increasingly rare these days. We're never quite sure who we should be rooting for, as the film refuses to vilify any one character. To that end, it's the performances that ensure these people never become one-dimensional. Kingsley, sporting an Iranian accent, does a fantastic job of portraying this man that firmly believes he's in the right. There's a quiet dignity to this character, though there are instances where Kingsley's required to lose his temper; not surprisingly, Kingsley has no problem running the gamut of emotions. Similarly, Connelly easily slips into the skin of Kathy - and gives a nuanced and layered performance that's miles beyond her Oscar winning role in A Beautiful Mind. And Eldard, an actor known mostly for comedies, more than holds his own opposite these two powerhouses.
The film flounders a little bit in the last half hour, where coincidences start to pile up. Eldard's character makes a shocking discovery at just the right moment, while an old friend runs into him at the worst possible time. The film is otherwise so engaging that it's easy enough to overlook these small flaws, which seem to exist only to allow for a certain type of ending. The House of Sand and Fog is clearly one of the best films of the year, but probably won't be recognized come award season due to the downbeat nature of the story.
And that's a shame.