After all its emotionally apocalyptic debris clears, House of Sand and Fog is little more than a beautifully made bummer. This movie’s final act is so relentlessly depressing that, by comparison, that of Mystic River feels as sunny as The Lizzie McGuire Movie.
The film is exceptionally acted and competently paced by first-time director Vadim Perelman. His slow-burn unveiling of the narrative’s inevitable tragic spin is significantly more involving than the way-too-obvious In the Bedroom. (That film was based on “Killings,” a short story by Andre Dubus, whose son wrote the source novel for House of Sand and Fog.)
Where this otherwise flawless film goes wrong is its inability to convince the audience to not choose sides between both parties in its central conflict: Who really owns the titular house?
Is it Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), a recovering drug addict from whom the house has been seized by the government for non-payment of business taxes? Or is it Massoud Behrani (Ben Kingsley), a former Iranian colonel who buys the house at auction, envisioning it as the investment that will right the off-course ship of his immigrant family’s dreams?
One of the movie’s insistent themes is the intrusion of the American system on the American dream. It’s portrayed with beautiful understatement for the Behrani family, as Massoud suffers from working at multiple, menial jobs beneath his experience, talent and dedication. The film’s attack of xenophobia is its sharpest, unflinching and memorable.
Personal choices ultimately play a big role in the family’s tragedy, but there is a sense that the system has failed their hard work and dedication. Kathy comes off as a lazy lay-about who can’t even open her mail.
While she may not have owed business taxes as local government insisted, there’s still the matter of the follow-up notices she has allowed to pile up. There is the briefly touched-upon fact her father worked hard to pay off the house. And as vague as the film is about her past addictions, there are no points for sympathy there, either.
What I saw in Kathy instead was an ingeniously clever user of the weak-willed. Her every attempt to get inside the house feeling like a well-planned manipulation, especially her last one, which Perelman plays up to make us feel sympathy for her, not the Behranis, whose sympathies she’s using.
She pulls similar strings on Lester (Ron Eldard), a doe-eyed cop in a loveless marriage who feels “found” by Kathy. Lester’s emotional corruption is one of the film’s saddest elements, he a seemingly good man ruined by furiously near-sighted obsession.
Connelly is never flashy or obvious about Kathy’s seeming ulterior motives, making her performance all the more striking. As it is, the film does not make her sympathetic, but had it plowed forth with this subtle view, it would have been more chilling and effective. Her final line feels like the wrong answer to the question posed to her, empty, cold and vague.
Not having read the book, I can’t say if there has been a change. But her performance still is a standout, even if Perelman equates her equally as a victim in all this as the colonel and his family.
As its patriarch, Behrani is a man not without his demons and maybe lies about his past. Any more, we expect a knockout performance from Kingsley, but this is a fully etched, truly heartbreaking character, by turns stern, violent, humbled and loving.
Behrani is a man to be feared, with his fierce barking of orders and occasional violence. But he’s also a man to be sympathized with, his eyes scampering with vulnerability as the house conflict grows. His family doesn’t always see this, though, and their perception of him leads toward their tragedy. Kingsley’s heart-wrenching confrontation of his faith and an emotionally flattening resolution that follows are outstanding.
For these two performances alone, the film is worth seeing. It’s far from tawdry melodrama, but its insistence on a middle-road keeps it from being more high-minded.