Based on the best selling novel by Andre Dubus, House Of Sand And Fog is a slow paced, yet gripping tale of two people's struggle over the disputed ownership of a house in an American seaside suburb.
Kathy (played by the ever dazzling Jennifer Connelly), a low-paid cleaner struggling with depression after being abandoned by her husband, wakes up one morning to find that, due to an error at the tax office, she's being evicted for unpaid business taxes on the property. And this isn't just any old house; it's the house that her deceased father worked all his life to pay for, and represents her last grip on reality and her rapidly fading identity.
As Kathy seeks help from a lawyer to regain the house, a shrewd buyer purchases it at auction for a fraction of its value and promptly begins plans to resell it at a huge profit. Again however, this sale isn't just about turning a quick profit, for Iranian immigrant Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley) the sale of this house represents a chance to save his family from impending financial ruin and keep them in the lifestyle which he feels is fitting. This lifestyle has been eating through their savings at an alarming rate and Behrani keeps two full-time menial jobs simply to keep them afloat.
Before long the stage is set for a showdown between Kathy and Behrani which soon turns into a vicious battle of wills as stubborn pride and desperation collide head on with tragic consequences. The heavy handed intervention of a local cop who forms an intense relationship with Kathy is the match which lights the tinder and instigates a catastrophic series of events which seal the players' fates.
As you may have gathered by now, tragedy is a key theme here. And it's worth going prepared for this. What ensues is an intense conflict of wills in which no one escapes unscathed. There are no rose-tinted sunset endings here, and to his credit director Vadim Perelman pulls no punches, and sees this gritty melodrama through to its gut-wrenching conclusion. This is essentially a work of pathos whose success depends upon eliciting an emotional connection from the audience.
Personally, I found the all pervading, inescapable sense of foreboding which lingered from the opening scene to the final shot a little disconcerting. The characters are well developed, and have enough depth and scope to be truly engaging, but the inescapable feeling of an ominous undercurrent prevented me from fully committing to the extent probably required to get some sort of cathartic reward from the tragic finale.
There's certainly much to admire and enjoy though, namely in the performances of Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly. Kingsley isn't known for doing things by halves, and this role is no exception. He inhabits the character of Behrani with an immense and often menacing presence which makes for truly mesmerizing and compelling viewing. As a powerful, influential Colonel under the Shah in Iran, Behrani once commanded respect from all around him. Now since fleeing for their lives after the Shah's downfall he and his family find themselves dispossessed fugitives, struggling to find their place at the bottom rung of an alien society. Kingsley manages to beautifully weave both obstinate pride and desperation into a complex, intriguing character which broods with all the suppressed power and danger of a caged tiger. Fully worthy of his Oscar nomination, this is a rare virtuoso performance which deserves to be seen.
And not to be outdone, Jennifer Connelly is back on the sort of form which won her wide recognition in films such as Requiem For A Dream and A Beautiful Mind. She masters a difficult role, playing a character who appears to possess few redeeming qualities and an innate compulsion for self destruction. It's her natural vulnerability and unassuming 'normalness' which bring life to a character which could so easily have been overplayed. Connelly brings a necessary humanity to an irrational, emotionally inept screwball, which enables us to respond with sympathy when she inevitably comes undone.
Also worthy of note is Shohreh Aghedashloo who plays Behrani's beleaguered yet resilient and insistently kindhearted wife Nadi. Although Ron Eldard struggles to make an impact in a weak role as the hot-headed cop who comes to Kathy's aid, only serving to plunge her further into crisis
There's some stunning cinematography (including endless shots of rolling fog) which creates the eerie atmosphere of a tense thriller, despite the fact that the film is actually a straight up, linear melodrama. The music by James Horner is often overbearing and ultimately detracts from the more intimate moments with sweeping string movements and unnecessarily 'leading' orchestration.
Ultimately this is an ambitious undertaking for debut director Vadim Perelman which doesn't quite hit the mark, leaving a little too much melancholy in it's wake despite some excellent performances.
:: Tom West