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Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2004
Here's tragedy for tragedy's sake
"House of Sand and Fog" is a film that causes a little twinge as your eyes pass over the star billings on the poster: Ben Kingsley paired opposite Jennifer Connelly. Panic sets in: Please, God, don't let this be a romantic comedy!
Fortunately, it's nothing of the sort. Rather, "House of Sand and Fog" is an exquisite bummer of a movie, one that pits Kingsley vs. Connelly as accidental adversaries, their lives intertwined by an oh-so-cruel twist of fate.
Both actors are cast to type here, with results that can't be argued with: Kingsley repeats the ethnic-reinvention of himself that he did so convincingly in "Gandhi," while Connelly never is better than when she lets the shadows of despair pass over her delicate features. (See "Requiem for a Dream" or "Pollock.")
This is the sort of film that excites critics, with its emphasis on fine performances and a literary script based on the best-selling novel by Andre DuBus III, which lightly harnesses larger themes to a personal story. Director Vadim Perelman brings a controlled style that serves the material well, allowing its inherent intensity to come from the actors, without resorting to overwrought editing or camerawork.
It's a rather classical approach, and one that won't attract as much immediate attention as the innovative and fractured flashback style of "21 Grams," a similarly tragic film. But "House of Sand and Fog" does employ a dual-track structure, setting up two separate characters, two separate stories and teasing us with their point of collision.
Connelly plays Kathy Nicolo, a young woman who thinks she's hit rock bottom, but doesn't yet know what ill fortune a knock on the door will bring. A recovering alcoholic and recent divorcee, she's living alone in a big old house, which at least offers the comfort of a beautiful view of the Pacific. One fine morning a government bureaucrat turns up and repossess her house for failure to pay a business tax she doesn't actually owe. With cops in tow, he evicts her -- effective immediately.
Kathy enlists the help of a lawyer to rectify things, but to her misfortune, the house is bought immediately upon being put up for auction. The buyer is one Massoud Amir Behrani (Kingsley), a former colonel in Shah-era Iran who has fled with his family to exile in the States. A dignified man accustomed to privilege, he nevertheless holds down two menial jobs to keep his family afloat as their savings dwindle. Behrani sees the house as his last, best hope to get ahead in this foreign land.
Kathy, meanwhile, is left utterly homeless, reduced to crashing in the backseat of her car, which she decides to park outside "her" house. One of the cops who evicted her, Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), takes pity on Kathy and decides to do what he can to help her out. Perhaps it's from the goodness of his heart, but more likely it's because he's hot for her, and his own marriage is falling apart.
Burdon decides to play a bit outside the rule book, and threatens Behrani with a call to the INS, a move which has many unintended consequences, all of them bad.
The tragedy here, and it's poignant, is that no one is acting with bad intentions or ill will. Kathy wants back the house she grew up in, and can't understand why Behrani won't just sell it back for the price he paid. Behrani's too proud to admit to his own desperate straits and clings to the idea that he's done nothing wrong, that it's the city's mistake and Kathy should just sue them. He doesn't see that for Kathy there's a huge emotional investment in it, that losing the house that her father worked his whole life to buy could be the final f***-up that drives her over the edge.
That it does. "House of Sand and Fog" is a cool but merciless depiction of how easily fairly small and resolvable arguments can spin wildly out of control. The way in which Kathy and Behrani allow themselves to demonize each other -- one as a greedy, devious Arab immigrant, the other as a dissolute American with an inflated sense of entitlement -- is obviously indicative of larger concerns. It's left to Iranian actress Shoreh Aghdashloo as Behrani's wife Nadi, in a performance that won her many critics' awards, to show us a bit of compassion, to actually try and understand her adversary. She almost succeeds; see the movie.