House of Sand and Fog (R)
In an attempt to lay out a tragedy that doesn't take sides, where no one can be blamed for the outcome, director Vadim Perelman risks losing all sympathy for his characters -- at least for one of the principals. For this viewer, that was too big a risk, one that ultimately makes House of Sand and Fog the feel-bad movie of the season.
Adapted from Andre Dubus III's wrenching novel, one of the final choices of Oprah's now-defunct book club, House is the tale of a woman's struggle to hold on to her family home, left to her by her deceased father, and an immigrant family's attempt to use it as a tool to reclaim their fortune, lost when they fled Iran during the fall of the Shah.
Jennifer Connelly is Kathy Nicolo, a depressed woman whose husband left her eight months ago, so debilitated by her personal failures that she doesn't bother to open the stack of mail piling up at her door. Buried in it is a bill for a business tax that has gone uncollected, a charge that turns out to be a bureaucratic mistake but which causes her to lose her home to eviction anyway.
Ben Kingsley is Massoud Amir Behrani, a former officer under the Shah of Iran, now secretly paving roads and working at a convenience store in California to keep his elegant wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and his teen-age son Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout) comfortable in the style to which they have become accustomed. Behrani keeps careful track of every penny he spends and earns, and scans the classified ads for a seized property he can buy at auction. When Kathy's house becomes available, he snatches it up, moves in immediately, begins renovations and puts it back on the market at four times the price he paid for it.
Meanwhile, Kathy seeks help from an ineffective attorney (Frances Fisher) and beds a good-looking young deputy sheriff (Ron Eldard) whose marriage is ending. Lester, the cop, makes one bad decision after another in his attempts to help Kathy get her house back, and she looks on with helpless anger and washed-out resign as her life becomes more and more unstable.
There are several significant problems at play here: What constitutes security? How do property and the need to own it destabilize and supplant human interdependency? What is honor and what is mere pride?
Kingsley communicates the conflicting sorrows, rages and ambitions of his character in a masterful performance. His loss is so great it is almost unbearable to watch. And Aghdashloo as his wife raises the film to an aesthetic level that honors beauty while questioning its place in a world dominated by commerce at any cost.
The problem with of House of Sand and Fog, besides some repetitive atmospheric camera shots that become tiresome and add little to the drama, is the character of Kathy. Connelly gives it her best shot, and frequently wins the viewer with her blue eyes that go from ice to ocean depending on her level of suffering. But Kathy is an unsympathetic character and, more importantly, an unreliable one. That her motives and needs drive the drama to an ultra-tragic conclusion (there are no less than three suicide attempts in the film) is ultimately unacceptable.
-- Kathryn Eastburn