“House of Sand and Fog” is one of the most spectacular-looking films of the year -- cinematically wise -- and is also one of the best films to round out the bottom-heavy year of good movies. Oh how I dread upcoming January.
The movie stars Jennifer Connelly whom is getting more brilliant (minus “Hulk”) with every film she enriches. She plays Kathy Nicolo, a young woman whose life is about to go from in-the-gutter to worse. Since her husband left her eight months ago, Kathy has been alone in a home left to her by her late father, and unable to pay the taxes on the three-bedroom ocean view home.
After ignoring warning letters from the county, Kathy gets evicted and the house is put up for auction. It is purchased by Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an Iranian immigrant who was a colonel and controversial figure in his native country. The details are sketchy, but we gradually learn that events forced Behrani to America with his wife Nadi Behrani (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and son Esmail Behrani (Jonathan Ahdout) in order to escape persecution.
Kathy is unhappy with her eviction and plans to reclaim her house which she believes was stolen from her. Now on paper, the house belongs to Massoud and his family, but ethical issues require us to examine the situation a little deeper:
Yes, Kathy should have at least opened her warning letters and done something to postpone the eviction that happened because of a meager $500 in taxes that weren’t paid. However they were business taxes and because Kathy never owned a business, she should have never had to pay those taxes in the first place. She could have asked for help from her brother who resides on the opposite coast, or even her mother who still believes she is married, but again the initial fault belongs to the county.
The house now belongs to Massoud, and he earned it. He works two jobs and never expects anything more than he earns. It’s his house, but he never really wanted it in the first place. The plan was to purchase it from the country at the seized price, then spruce it up a little and put it back on the market for four times what he paid for it. Should Massoud sell the house back to the county for face-value and make no profit just so the woman who lost it can lose it again?
Never has a movie (from the novel by Andre Dubus II) created two parties at the same time both innocent and guilty. They both have done right and wrong, and the film wisely picks no favorites. We sympathize for every character, and because we invest our emotion in the characters and the story, we will be in for a serious rollercoaster ride in the end.
The real trouble begins when Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), the deputy sheriff and evicting officer comes becomes a major character. He instantly falls for Kathy, but we wonder how long his loyalty to a homeless albeit beautiful woman will last considering he’s got a wife and two kids back at home. He says he will leave his family for Kathy, but when Lester eventually abuses his badge and puts his own job at risk, we know which woman means a more immediately-secure future for Lester. Kathy knows this too and tells him, "I'll understand if you don't." when he tells her he’ll be back in a few hours after leaving her in a drearily empty cottage in the woods to return home and finalize the separation from his family.
Kathy isn’t as irrational as we are first led to believe. She first tries to resolve the dispute through an attorney (Frances Fisher), but when she can do little to help her, Lester decides to take matters into his own hands. We admire his cause and determination to help Kathy get her house back, but he is clearly the antagonist in the story. Kathy may be the recovering alcoholic, but we still put more faith in her.
The movie was elegantly made and both Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley give top-notch performances, both of whom are recent Oscar winners. The director is Vadim Perelman whom only has this film under his belt, and is currently working on the 2005 film, “The Talisman,” based on the novel by Stephen King. It is worth anticipating, as Perelman has already proved he can make a stylish movie, even when the premise of a film is as simple as good vs. evil, -- though in this movie, the good and evil are blurred to perfection.
It’s hard to say I truly enjoyed “House of Sand and Fog” because there is little to enjoy regarding the subject matter. I think of “May,” the best horror movie of 2003 that you never heard of (OK, it’s a short list). That film, while dark, creepy and disturbing, had its bright moments of humor. “House of Sand and Fog” doesn’t. But it’s so powerful, I had to give it the “A” and put in on my Top 10 list of 2003. Like “Owning Mahowny,” it’s one of the few films that completely sells to you its characters, and has you wishing for their wellbeing the entire duration.
Without giving too much away, I will tell you that you should prepare to go down some pretty intense and depressing roads. The sand gradually settles and the fog does eventually clear, yes. But what we are left with isn’t pretty. However as a moviegoing experience and two-hour flight from reality, “House of Sand a Fog” is a brilliantly fascinating movie.