House of Sand and Fog

January, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Vadim Perelman

Starring:Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, and Shohreh Aghdashloo

House Of Sand & Fog

Tragedy, (n) a play dealing with tragic events and with an unhappy ending, esp. concerning the downfall of the protagonist.

Oxford American Desk Dictionary

Oxford's editors, despite the tautology employed, have done an excellent--and succinct--job of describing this directorial debut by Vadim Perelman, (who also wrote the screenplay) which he adapted from a novel by Andre Dubus III. It's a grim piece of work and not without its faults; but at the same time, "House" emerges as possibly the best American film released during the over-crowded holiday season just past. In it, two ostensibly different people struggle over the ownership and possession of a house, with devastating results for the combatants and those around them.

Jennifer Connelly, (whose stunning appearance in A Beautiful Mind made her a bankable star) plays Kathy, the disaffected co-owner of her deceased father's house in suburban San Francisco. Morose at the collapse of her marriage and forced to fend for herself by cleaning other people's houses, she's stunned by the seizure of her home for failure to pay back taxes. In fact, as she angrily points out, she doesn't owe them, but a bureaucratic blunder puts her home on the auction block where it's snapped up by former Colonel Massoud Behrani, (Ben Kingsley) an Iranian refugee from that country's current regime. Now working two jobs in an effort to support his wife and high-school age son, Behrani sees the house as the perfect investment, lowering his current living expenses while providing an opportunity to turn a quick profit after minor repairs and improvements are made.

Kathy hires a lawyer to prevent her eviction, but her failure to respond to earlier notices sent her in the mail by county officials make the process of reclamation both time consuming and expensive, so she seeks help from Lester, (Ron Eldard) the deputy sheriff charged with her eviction. Trapped in a loveless marriage from which he's half-heartedly trying to escape, Lester improperly pressures the new owner to rescind the purchase. But Behrani refuses to do so and retaliates by reporting Lester to his superiors. As the confrontation escalates, Kathy employs increasingly desperate means to confront Behrani, who responds by involving his wife and son in what has now become a frightening contest of wills, inexorably making compromise impossible. Inevitably, victory comes--but at a terrible cost.

What makes House so interesting?  Perelman presents his audience with protagonists who could not ostensibly be more different, but whose underlying weaknesses make the story's agonizing climax all but inevitable. He's aided in this remarkable feat by the work of this three leads, as they reveal the conflicting elements of their characters with superb performances. Kathy, victim of a horrific bureaucratic blunder, initially demands the sympathy of the audience, but as the action unfolds, Connelly brilliantly provides a complex portrait of a self-absorbed young woman whose principle technique for survival lies in her ability to attach herself to those she believes capable of achieving for her what she's incapable of accomplishing for herself. She's not consciously parasitic, but gloms onto those stronger than she is with the unselfconscious intensity of a born schemer. Equal parts low-esteem and self-pity, she sees herself at the mercy of powerful but impersonal forces indifferent to her plight, but she's adept at placing the blame for her condition on everything and everyone other than herself. 

In contrast, Col. Behrani operates behind a façade; his military bearing, icy self-discipline and grim determination to reclaim his position in society mask a morbid fear of inadequacy.  Struggling to keep up appearances in the Iranian/American community, frightened at the prospect of not having enough money to provide for his son's college education and nervously obsequious in the presence of his married daughter's upper class in-laws, Behrani simply cannot accept that his apparently successful foray into real-estate is burdened by the legitimate claims of his new home's previous owner.

It's the inability of these two crippled personalities to see the merits of each other's positions that generates the movie's tension;  the director paces the escalation of events perfectly, carefully laying out the respective merits of both competitors in this ethical dilemma even as they circle each other with increasingly irrational responses. 

Eldard, a veteran character known for his ability to play characters with more blue-collar charm than brains, turns in the performance of his career as Lester, a decent man lost in a marriage whose collapse he can't understand but one which makes him especially vulnerable to the charms of an attractive woman whose neediness he mistakes for love. (When he tells her at one point that he doesn't deserve her, she sizes him up like a carnival barker selecting a mark and sweetly replies, "oh yes you do!"). Kathy methodically reels him in even as she fends him off with concerns about his family, (for which she hasn't the slightest genuine concern) first corroding and then destroying his basic decency as he struggles to help her resolve a conflict in which he's a mere bystander.

 Kingsley, whose performance in Sexy Beast displayed the actor's ability to project a truly frightening propensity for barely suppressed rage, uses just the right amount of that volcanic capability here; his Colonel is a decent man too, but one who has responded to the bitterness of his personal defeat in Iran by becoming dictatorial in his small family in order to mask his growing inability to sustain his stature as a person of consequence. Kingsley delivers a portrait of a proud man who senses he's incapable of accomplishing what he believes his station in life requires of him. By the time he implodes in the film's climax, Behrani has become both sympathetic and maddingly obstinate; Kingsley's ability to hold these mutual opposing characteristics in perfect balance is a joy to watch.

Perelman's skill with the lens lags well behind his storytelling abilities; the camera is often a rather wooden observer of the plot's action, and the shots of Kathy's increasingly self-absorbed isolation, filmed on the beaches and piers near her home, have a pseudo-serious, student-film look. But he's put believable characters on the screen and given them credible dialogue--the result is decidedly down-beat but compellingly devastating.   

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