Jennifer Connelly as Kathy Nicolo
Ben Kingsley as Col. Massoud Behrani
Ron Eldard as Lester Burdon
Frances Fisher as Connie Walsh
Kim Dickens as Carol Burdon
Shohreh Aghdashloo as Nadi
Jonathan Ahdout as Esmail
Navi Rawat as Soraya
Carlos Gómez as Lt. Alvarez
Kia Jam as Ali
Jaleh Modjallal as Yasmin
Samira Damavandi as Little Soraya
Matthew Simonian as Little Esmail
Unquestionably, having a home is one of the greatest necessities in life. Whether it be a rented studio apartment or a spacious mansion, having a place to call one’s own that no one can take is essential to defining us as human beings and solidifying our own identities.
In House of Sand and Fog, Kathy Nicolo, a troubled Malibu woman played by Jennifer Connelly, learns this the hard way, when she is wrongly evicted from her beachside house due to a technicality. Within a matter of days, the house is sold for a fraction of its cost to Colonel Massoud Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an Iranian dissident who hopes to resell the house for a hefty profit to help bring his family back the lifestyle to which they were accustomed. Homeless and living in her car, Kathy tries and fails to get the house back using the legal system, forcing her to confront the unwavering Behrani directly. An already tense situation gets worse when she becomes involved with Lester Burdon, a married deputy sheriff, so smitten with her that he risks everything to help her win the bitter dispute over the house.
Based on the novel by Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog is an amazing piece of filmmaking, exploring the concepts of home and family. For Kathy, a recovered alcoholic, the house represents the father she lost and her only safe shelter from the problems that have plagued her since her husband left her eight months earlier. Her abandonment and self-esteem issues are only compounded when Lester is forced to choose between her and his own family.
On the other hand, Behrani is a proud man, forced to work multiple menial jobs to support his family, and the house represents attaining the American dream that he so desperately wants for them. His wife, portrayed beautifully by Shohreh Aghdashloo, is used to living in luxury, but her spoiled attitude is counteracted with a cowering obedience to her intense and ruthless military husband. Behrani’s relentless desire to keep the house for his family blinds him to the fact that his family is falling apart.
At the core of this drama are compelling performances by two actors who have received many accolades for their past work. Behrani is yet another fascinating character in Sir Ben Kingsley’s already impressive repertoire. His ability to capture the emotional depth of this complex character is breathtaking, and he is very deliberate with every word and movement to create a powerful portrayal of a military man’s anger, pride and stubbornness.
Likewise, Connelly’s performance is on a par with some of her most highly regarded work, most notably her role in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Many of her movies since have had her supporting a stronger male actor, but here, she is absolutely riveting every time she’s on screen. In even scene, she exudes the desperation of this lost soul that can be empathized by anyone who has lost a job or drifted from day to day wondering when thing will get better.
Although there aren’t as many scenes between the two lead actors as one might expect, their battle of wills drives the film, as the threats from each side escalates to a dramatic climax. The conflict works on a few levels, including a political one, where Behrani’s Iranian background is subject to racism from Lester’s intolerance, as he uses his power to threaten the family with deportation. Sadly, most of the other performances in the film are a bit wooden, especially Eldard, who seems out of his depth acting with two much stronger actors.
The only thing that keeps the story from being enjoyable is that it is difficult to fully stand behind any of the characters. Each of them has their share of unlikable qualities and they do things that few viewers will be able to condone. On the one hand, you have the damaged Kathy who doesn’t heed the advice of the people trying to help her, and then you have Behrani whose pride dictates his actions, regardless of who might get hurt by them. With a single plot twist, the empathy of the viewer shifts from one to the other, but the viewer is bombarded with one shocking twist after another, which makes the last half hour of the film heart-rending. None of what happens is remotely predictable, which is commendable, considering the temptation of most movies to succumb to cheery Hollywood endings, but ultimately, it makes the film a bit too much of a downer.
There’s more to any good movie than a decent story and skilled acting, and first-time director Vadim Perelman assembles an equally capable crew to bring his vision of the novel to life. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is stunning, particularly the stirring time lapse scenes of the foggy Malibu coastline. That, combined with a beautiful score by veteran James Horner, makes every scene more tense and dramatic.
House of Sand and Fog is an amazing first effort from Perelman, an insightful human drama that takes a rather obvious premise-a conflict over property-and adds enough character development to keep it from turning into a typical thriller. It also joins Dirty Pretty Things, as one of the more interesting recent looks at immigrant life. Although the story isn’t as original as films like 21 Grams and it has its problems, the memorable performances by Kingsley and Connelly make it one of the better dramas this year. It will grab you, shake you and unless you’re completely devoid of emotion, move you.
House of Sand and Fog opened in New York and Los Angeles today, December 19th, and it will expand to major cities on December 26th.