House of Sand and Fog

on December 19, 2003 by Mark Keizer
What could have been, in lesser hands, a cheap and heartless real estate smackdown is instead a somber, intriguing and morally juicy drama for most of its running time. Freshman helmer Vadim Perelman is a director to watch as he combines intelligence and mood in adapting the acclaimed novel by Andre Dubus III. DreamWorks has a tough sell here: Audiences expecting the empty calories of house-centric thrillers like "Pacific Heights" or the more recent "Cold Creek Manor" must instead gird themselves for the feel-bad film of the year.

Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), an alcoholic whose husband recently left her, is living in the house she inherited from her father. The county wrongly evicts her for not paying her taxes and, by the time the error is discovered, the house has been auctioned off to Massoud Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an Iranian Colonel who escaped the Shah and came to America with his wife and son. Behrani is not as wealthy as his opulent lifestyle suggests, and he secretly works menial jobs to provide for his family, who believes he's a high-paid white-collar professional. His plan for the house is to fix it up and sell it at a hefty profit, which will end his money woes.

Despite the efforts of Kathy's attorney (Frances Fisher), Behrani has no legal obligation to leave the house. So with the financial and familial rug pulled out from under her, Kathy is reduced to living in her car and begging Behrani to give her back the home. Her fortunes seemingly change when she's befriended by Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), a deputy sheriff in a loveless marriage. He is intent on reclaiming the house for Kathy (and Kathy for himself), although his tactics become more and more suspect.

Like in all good films of its type, neither of the two main characters is particularly in the wrong. Although his purchase was predicated on a clerical error, Behrani still bought the house fair and square. For him, the home is the embodiment of immigrant success in America and the key to a happier life for his family. As for Kathy, who is too ashamed to tell her family the house is gone, it should never have been taken away in the first place. For her, the home is the one last tenuous connection to a formerly happy existence. And as the film moves along, the problem seems increasingly unsolvable. The movie is on its surest footing as long as it stays in this moral limbo, with the audience not sure with whom to side. It's when the story is forced to resolve itself that Perelman begins to lose his grip. He lays intriguing and classy groundwork, but can't quite pull off the final 15 minutes, during which various dramatic moments begin to rear-end each other, resulting in a bit of a wreck.

Also, the audience is asked to forgo some minor plot contrivances, if not the feeling that the whole thing could have been avoided if the characters didn't have a script to follow. Indeed, Behrani's actions and motivations are merely a convenient (albeit delicious and well-realized) counterpoint to the plight of our heroine. However, Kingsley is so good here, with his stern and wide-eyed gaze, it hardly matters. His Behrani is an intensely proud man who takes his patriarchal duty quite seriously, especially if the alternative is deportation back to Iran. Fellow Oscar-winner Connelly holds her own with Kingsley. Her effortless beauty is given a lower-middle-class downgrade, which combines with sympathetic eyes and formidable acting chops. Elsewhere, Ron Eldard gives his best screen performance, while Shohreh Aghdashloo is very good as Behrani's wife.

But the big winner here is Perelman. He refuses to give in to the story's pulpier leanings, keeping things smart and serious without unduly showing off, which is a major vice of commercial directors transitioning to film. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins' photography is noirish and devoid of sheen, while composer James Horner turns in good work early, until he starts recycling "A Beautiful Mind" in the later goings. Starring Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley. Directed by Vadim Perelman. Written by Vadim Perelman and Shawn Lawrence Otto. Produced by Vadim Perelman and Michael London. A DreamWorks release. Drama. Rated R for some violence/disturbing images, language and a scene of sexuality. Running time: 126 min

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