Director Vadim Perelman’s first foray into mainstream filmmaking, “House of Sand and Fog,” is astonishing to say the least, but be prepared for some heavy-hitting drama because it’s so depressing you’ll need some Zoloft afterward.The film essentially takes a fairly simple premise and then twists it more than a Bavarian pretzel.
In the opening, the audience is introduced to Kathy, (Jennifer Connelly) a recovering junkie who has remained in a state of depression since the death of her dad about a year ago.
The only positive thing resulting from the traumatic event is the house he left to her, something special he wanted her to have in the event of his death. Unfortunately, Kathy has shut herself off from the world in every way. This includes reading mail, in this case mail that indicates her house will be taken from her by Pacific County if she doesn’t pay a business tax. Within moments of the opening credits, the county is seen storming through the home as Kathy watches in shock.
Extremely distraught, Kathy immediately contacts a lawyer (Frances Fisher) in hopes of resolving the situation immediately. Unfortunately, during this short process, Colonel Massou Behrani (Ben Kingsley) enters the picture. Behrani is a general who is looking to give his wife and child a better life for themselves. He snatches up the house at the auction and then attempts to sell it for three times the price, hoping to use the extra cash to buy his family an even grander home and also put his son through school.
Meanwhile, Kathy, who hopes to have the house back by the end of the week because her mother is visiting, is sent into shock when she is informed that the house has been sold. This begins a bitter feud between Kathy and the colonel over the house, in which the two mentally and eventually physically make attempts to regain what they feel is rightfully theirs. An unhappy police officer named Lester (Ron Eldard) befriends Kathy and attempts to use force and scare tactics to remove Behrani from the home, all causing a slow downward spiral of events that becomes apparent during a tragic third act.
The “House of Sand and Fog” is a tricky film to make. Its main characters are immoral and selfish, which has the potential to turn audiences off altogether. What is the point of staying interested in a film that features unappealing leads? Luckily, Perelman at least fleshes out his characters so that the audience can actually feel empathy for both sides, and ultimately understand each party’s irresponsible actions.
Behrani bears the strength of Perelman’s screenwriting, and that, coupled with Kingsley’s performance, causes fireworks on-screen. (and an Oscar nomination). Perelman presents the culture clash between the Iranians and the Americans with interesting flair, displaying American society’s ignorance to even the simplest things, such as the incorrect pronunciation of Behrani’s son’s name, to the difference in work ethic between the two cul-tures. (Apparently Americans are selfish and unappreciative.)
Unfortunately, Perelman doesn’t offer enough depth and compassion for Kathy, which hurts the film in the end. Kathy’s desperate acts are truly felt here (an attempted suicide in her car is heartbreaking), but too many other times Kathy is shown as unlikable and without redeeming qualities. Lester suffers from an even worse characterization; his cop is a bumbling idiot who borders on cartoonish.
Despite some screenwriting issues, there is no shortage of quality in the performances here. Connelly’s character may be underwritten, but she gives every last ounce of energy to make the audience feel what’s missing in between. Her performance is both desperate and strikingly real, earning just enough respect to let the flaws on her character remain overlooked. Kingsley, on the other hand, is a revelation of sorts. He has not commanded an audience’s attention like this in some time. His colonel will undoubtedly anger you, frustrate you and ultimately win your acceptance, indicating that Kingsley has given this character more dimensions than a rubix cube.
Most importantly, the film will be remembered for its third act, which is incredibly downbeat in nature. The end result may prove unrealistic, which tends to make one think the film is intended as a parable of sorts. Perelman is trying to tell a story about people, choices, and the things upon which we place value and importance.
In the end, the “House of Sand and Fog” is a flawed experience that still manages to burn into your brain. The images and sequences at the close of the film are both breathtaking and beautiful in their tragic presentation. It may seem as first like meaningless chaos, but the experience as a whole perhaps allows us to reevaluate life, and appreciate what normally is taken for granted.