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"Devastatingly dark and painfully honest."
"This is as good as it gets and Kingsley delivers a memorable tour de force."
"An unfortunate tale of when bad things happen to good people."
House of Sand and Fog  

Cast

Kathy Nicolo: Jennifer Connelly
Massoud Amir Behrani: Ben Kingsley
Lester Burdon: Ron Eldard
Connie Walsh: Frances Fisher
Carol Burdon: Kim Dickens
Nadi Behrani: Shohreh Aghdashloo
Esmail Behrani: Jonathan Ahdout
Review December 2003

Based on the highly acclaimed novel by Andre Dubus III, "House of Sand and Fog" is a somber and yet, heavy-handed psychological thriller about false perceptions, stubborn integrity, and the desperate search for retribution, no matter the cost. More or less a Greek tragedy in which bad things happen to good people, the story puts the wheels of disaster in motion following the eviction of its protagonist, Kathy Nicolo. After failing to resolve the situation legally, it escalates into a personal confrontation with the house's current owners, an immigrant family from Iran. Marking the writing and directorial debut of Vadim Perelman, "House of Sand and Fog" is an extraordinary piece of storytelling. Devastatingly dark and painfully honest, it paints a different side of the immigrant experience while showcasing two phenomenal performances by Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly.

"I miss my Dad. He worked really hard for that house. It took him 30 years to pay it off and it took me eight months to screw it up." So says Kathy Nicolo, after being evicted from her home by the local government for tax evasion. Problem is, Kathy doesn't owe any taxes. And after being forcibly removed from her home, it becomes quite apparent that the county made a huge mistake. But before the mess can be straightened out, the county puts the house up for auction and sells it to Massoud Amir Behrani and his Iranian family.

Behrani was once a high-ranking official in the Shah regime in Iran; however, with a change of power, they too were forcibly removed?from their home country. Looking to start anew, the Behrani's live beyond their means in a luxury apartment while Massoud pretends to live a suitable lifestyle to improve the chances his daughter will receive a good marriage. In an attempt to get out of debt and recapture the joy they once had while living in a beautiful bungalow off the Caspian Sea, Massoud places a bid on Kathy's former ocean view property. After winning the house through the county auction, he and his family move in and start making changes to the house's exterior.

The house represents the American dream for the Behranis and a way to ensure a good marriage and an education for their children. But for Kathy, the house is a nostalgic reminder of a quieter, more peaceful time. Desperate, impoverished, and homeless, Kathy decides to win back the last piece of stability in her life. And she finds temporary solace with a local attorney and a police officer. Although they make strides to help Kathy resolve the issue, their efforts are not quick enough to keep her from sliding into a deep depression - and ultimately, a decision to take matters into her own hands, regardless of the consequences.

"House of Sand and Fog" is an unfortunate tale of when bad things happen to good people. And it unfolds much like a Greek tragedy, whereby the protagonist (Kathy) incurs incidents beyond their control and while seeking causation (or a means to an end), winds up taking a course of action that may contribute to their own downfall. Yet what makes this film stand apart from the Greek tragedies of old is that it refuses to take sides; it does not pass judgment on its characters or their actions. Instead, it lets the events transpire as if they were to happen in real life and allows audiences to go back and forth with the characters emotionally. This is an amazing accomplishment for any writer or director, but even more impressive for first time Russian director and writer, Vadim Perelman.

Perelman, along with co-producer, Shawn Otto, adapted the screenplay from Dubus' work. And the story is a dandy, a slow ethical dilemma. "Things are not as they appear," Massoud Behrani tells a local attorney after being asked to sell his house back to the county. And throughout the film, this phrase resounds thematically. With every character and situation, there are appearances that obscure deeper secrets, hidden motives, and complicated issues. Kathy lies to her parents about her husband, Massoud deceives his family by appearing to work a more prestigious career, and Lester has an affair without telling his wife and children. To each of these characters, appearance means everything. Some even go as far as using their appearance or position unethically. But overall, the main characters in the film are not bad people (save for one selfish one). They are just normal individuals trying to do what is best, what is best for them, and what is best for their family.

I must confess, I am in awe of Ben Kingsley. He is one of the few actors today that is truly multidimensional, having an international appeal that transcends stereotypes. Sure, most will associate him with "Ghandi," a film that earned him an Oscar back in 1982. But ever since, this former British stage actor has effortlessly gone on to become a man of many faces, transforming into a New York gangster in "Bugsy," a Jewish bookkeeper in "Schindler's List," a Nazi war criminal in "Death and the Maiden," and an American vice president in the comedy, "Dave." Kingsley can do it all and he is so passionate and strong in his roles that it's easy to completely lose yourself in his characters. As Massoud Amir Behrani, there is absolutely no questioning his authenticity. You feel his embarrassment, his strong sense of duty and honor, and ultimately, his compassion and humility. This is as good as it gets and Kingsley delivers a memorable tour de force.

Equally impressive are Jennifer Connelly and Shohreh Aghdashloo. Connelly portrays the former junkie and present house cleaner with tearful volatility. Her character is hanging by a thread and with every down turn, we gain insight into her fragile nature and the potential for self-destruction. In a phone booth, she makes a desperate last call to her brother for help and it is here, where we comprehend the harshness of reality and begin to appreciate Connelly's heart wrenching performance. On the other side, Shohreh Aghdashloo turns in a quiet and beautiful performance as Massoud's wife Nadi. With growing skepticism and neighborly generosity, we know her intentions are true to human nature. Even though her English is awkward, looking into her eyes is like looking into her heart.

If there were a downside to this film, it would be the lack of background information on Kathy and Massoud. For instance, we know that Kathy is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, but we know nothing about her marriage or how it ended. Did she cause her own affliction, her own divorce? And Massoud, whose sketchy career as a colonel in an oppressive and brutal regime, might have looked completely different if he was depicted as a collaborator for years of bloodshed and violence in Iran. But all of those details are omitted, as if to prevent audiences from pre-judging the characters, characters that appear two dimensional and more important in the moment than with a substantive past.

All of that said, "House of Sand and Fog" remains an impressive and convincing tale of misjudgment, miscommunication, and misinterpretation. With explosive performances from Kingsley and Connelly and impartial storytelling, it slowly takes hold and doesn't let go. Ironically, the tragedy is not that the government made a mistake, but that the two well-intended parties cannot work something out. Even more so, how easily the actions of one single-minded, immoral individual can exacerbate the situation for everyone involved. Carl Sandberg once wrote: "The fog comes on little cat feet." This one just happens to come on the feet of a tiger.



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