Retro Film Review: House of Sand and Fog (2003)
It is estimated that average American changes home at least three times during his lifetime. Under such circumstances it is difficult to imagine people getting emotionally attached to real estate, at least not in a way people in Old World do. Since "moving to the greener pastures" is one of the important elements of American Dream, Americans tend to see fights over tiny pieces of land as something than happens only to savage Balkans tribes of gangs in inner-city ghettos. They might change their mind if they see House of Sand and Fog, 2003 drama directed by Vadim Perelman.
The plot, based on the best-selling novel by Andre Dubus III, starts with Kathy Nicolo (played by Jennifer Connelly), recovering alcoholic whose husband left her eight months ago. Because of that she was so depressed that she didn't open her mail, and when the tax authorities evict her from her Northern California bungalow over unpaid taxes, it is too late to do anything about it. That bungalow is put on auction and later bought at bargain prices by Bahrani (played by Ben Kingsley), former Iranian Air Force Colonel exiled to America after Islamic Revolution. For years he had to work all kinds of menial jobs in order to support his aristocratic wife Nadi (played by Shoreh Aghdashloo) and provide façade of respectability within his community. His plan is to sell the bungalow at full market price and thus regain wealth and respect he once had. But Kathy, now forced to sleep in her car, wants her house back and her, apparently hopeless, cause is taken by Lester Burdon (played by Ron Eldard), Sheriff's Deputy who fell madly in love and her. Lester will stop at nothing to get Kathy back in the house, even if it means breaking the very law he is supposed to protect. But Bahrani is equally determined to protect his new treasure and all the conflict escalates until tragedy becomes unavoidable.
There are few films that depend so much on acting as House of Sand and Fog does. First time director Vadim Perelman did very good job and had excellent collaborators in veteran composer James Horner and veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins. But the real treasure of this film can be found in actors. Shoreh Aghdashloo, Iranian actress who had to quit her career because of Islamic Revolution, brings a lot of her own experience to the role and makes the character of Nadi, seemingly the least important of them all, into one of one the most memorable. Her "Oscar" nomination for that role was quite justified. Her efforts were well-matched by two previous "Oscar" winners in the roles of main adversaries. Jennifer Connelly tries very hard and mostly succeeds in making blue-collar heroine likeable to the audience despite most of them not being sympathetic to her lost (and ultimately unjust) cause. Kingsley is even more effective in the role that requires him to switch between family tyrant, loving father and husband, hard-working immigrant, social hypocrite and pathetic wreck.
Great acting aside, House of Sand and Fog is very good, but not great film. While the plot rested on sound foundations of gritty realism, its tragic resolution depends too much on the all-too-convenient twists and characters acting in the most stupid ways imaginable. But the biggest problem is in its lack of the very objectivity Perelman tried to achieve. Through suggestive editing Perelman tries to paint Kathy and Bahrani as two sides of the same coins - two people who try to pursue the very same American Dream and who lay the very same claim on life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately, it isn't very hard for the audience to completely take the side of Bahrani. On one side there is a dedicated family man who endured the lifetime of hardship and humiliation in order to provide decent future for his loved ones. On the other side is someone who wasted her life through addiction and self- pity. For overwhelming majority of the audience taking sides among two main protagonists isn't the much of a choice.
There are some critics who view House of Sand and Fog as a some sort of allegoric comment on recent events. Scenes in which Bahranis - Middle Eastern immigrants - are mistreated by Lester - representative of American law enforcement - can be put in the context of the abuses in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. The scene at the very beginning, when Kathy wakes up only to find her house put on auction, shows the shock very much like the one experienced by USA on September 11th 2001 - when the country, which had taken its liberal democracy, security and prosperity for granted, had her illusions shattered in one terrifying instant. Others see the unfolding tragedy of House of Sand and Fog as a story of misunderstanding - Kathy and Lester repeatedly fail to interpret Bahranis in proper way, especially Lester who uses racists "towel head" stereotypes to conform to his personal illusions. But misunderstanding isn't limited to great unwashed masses. This could also be interpreted as a criticism of American Left, especially Limousine Liberals who seems to be equally detached from reality as blue-collar crypto-racists. In a brief, but brilliant scene, Bahrani visits the office of Kathy's idealistic lawyer and can't fail to notice a Soviet WW2 mobilisation poster accompanied with the words praising the concept of revolution as something "cool" and "hip". When Bahrani expresses his disdain for the poster he does so for anyone whose experiences don't allow taking liberal democracy for granted and those who understand true nature of its alternatives, regardless how fashionable they might look.
Even with contemporary politics put aside and with many of its flaws taken into account, House of Sand and Fog is an intense, thought- provoking movie experience.
RATING: 7/10 (+++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.films.reviews on February 16th 2005)
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