House of Sand and Fog (15)
“Things are not as they appear.”
So says Ben Kingsley near the beginning of The House of Sand and Fog; a theme echoed throughout the film. Based on the novel by Andre Dubus III, the film is Vadim Perelman’s directorial debut.
Kathy, a recovering alcoholic, has been living alone since her husband walked out eight months ago. She had fallen behind with the taxes for her modest split-level home that has a view, however distant, of the California shore and thr Pacific Ocean. She ignored warnings from the county and the house is put up for auction.
It is purchased by Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an Iranian immigrant, who was a colonel in the Shah’s air force but now works extremely hard in two jobs to support his family. He dreams that this house is the first step in rebuilding the lives of his wife and son. It is a good half hour before it becomes even remotely obvious where any of this is going, and by that time, the characters have been developed to the point where we are equally invested in both sides. This is what makes the film so intriguing.
It is easy enough to see why Massoud is doing what he’s doing, and the same goes for Kathy. Both are under the assumption that the other is wrong. Kathy believes that Massoud is a cold-hearted and wealthy foreigner, while Massoud thinks that Kathy is getting exactly what she deserves for not paying her taxes. Even the most outwardly vicious character, a policeman that Kathy has just started dating, has his reasons for doing what he does; viewing the situation from his point-of-view, it is impossible to say that we would not have done exactly the same thing.
The complexity of the screenplay requires the audience to constantly shift its allegiances. We are never quite sure who we should support as the film refuses to vilify any one character. Kingsley is excellent in portraying the Iranian who firmly believes he is in the right. There is a quiet dignity to his character, although there are instances where he is required to lose his temper and, unsurprisingly, Kingsley has no problem running the gamut of emotions. Similarly, Connelly slips easily into the psyche of Kathy and gives a nuanced and layered performance that at least equals her Oscar winning role in A Beautiful Mind.
The supporting cast is first class and features a number of less familiar faces. Ron Eldard plays Lester, the police officer who starts out as Kathy’s protector before becoming her lover. He has appeared in Black Hawk Down and Deep Impact. Shohreh Aghdashloo, whose Nadi attempts to mediate the dispute between her husband and Kathy, began her acting career in Iran before emigrating in 1978. Since then she has mostly worked in plays. 14-year old Jonathan Ahdout, as Esmail, is making his first feature film appearance.
The House of Sand and Fog is a hard and challenging film. It demands much from the audience, and repays with a powerful, engrossing drama, without facile answers. It draws upon a vast wellspring of human emotion, and it is remarkable to realise that this is Perelman’s first picture. His background is in TV commercials. All of the supporting work is of the highest calibre; from Roger Deakins’s crisp, straightforward cinematography, to James Horner’s surprisingly understated score.
Vadim Perelman | USA | 2003 | 126 minutes | 15