Thursday, February 1, 2007

From The Vault: House of Sand and Fog

Director: Vadim Perelman
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Shoreh Aghdashloo, Frances Fisher, Jonathan Ahdout

Release Date: 2003

Running Time: 126 min.

Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

"Masterpiece" is a word I try to use very selectively when reviewing a motion picture and not after careful consideration. This is one of those cases where it applies. For some reason I had problems remembering what film won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2003, which is either a poor reflection on my memory or that film, but considering I usually remember what film won in any given year, I'll say it's more likely the latter. After looking it up, I found out it was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. But it doesn't really matter.

What I can tell you with great certainty is that whatever film won that year was the wrong choice if it was released the same year as House of Sand and Fog. When it was over I felt like a better person for having seen it and felt like paying closer attention to how I treat people and how I view their behavior. For me, it was one of those rare movies that makes you think as well as feel.

After failing to pay false tax charge Kathy Nicolo (Connelly), a depressed recovering alcoholic who's husband just left her, is evicted from the house her father left her before he died. Now she's homeless and the only one willing to help is local sheriff Lester (Ron Eldard) who makes sure she has a place to stay and gives her the number of a good attorney (Frances Fisher). Before her and her lawyer can begin their fight it's auctioned off by the county and bought by Colonel Behrani (Kingsley), a former officer under the Shah in Iran who relocated his wife and son to America. He's had to work odd jobs just to make ends meet and they've been living in an apartment that's way beyond their means. After seeing the ad for this house in the paper it seems as if all his prayers are answered. He purchases it with the plan to renovate and resell it for four times it's worth, then be able to pay for his son's college education and improve things for his family.

The coastal Malibu house bears an uncanny resemblance to the family's former home in Iran further cementing Behrani's attachment to it and its representation for a better life in this country. He's now the rightful owner of the property, with a deed of sale to prove it. There's nothing Kathy can do. She 's lost her house. Behrani will sell it back, but ONLY at four times its value. What happens from here is shocking and heartbreaking and puts two total strangers on a collision course toward unimaginable tragedy and the saddest part of it is that it's really no one's fault. She thinks this man stole her house and in a sense, she's right.

He's living in a stolen house, as there was no good reason she should have been evicted in the first place. Regardless, he's the owner so he shouldn't, and isn't, obligated to return the house to her. He should be able to sell it for a profit and be able to provide a better life for his family. He's right also. They're both good people who would probably get along in most normal circumstances. In fact, they're great people. Except they're caught in a terrible situation where they make questionable choices and it brings out their worst qualities. These people could live next door to you. They're like you and I and that's what makes this situation so scary.

Behrani is an honorable man, but he's also very stubborn, somewhat hostile toward women, and can only see one side of the issue. Kathy is negligent, failing to open her mail for months, which would have informed her of this bogus tax charge. The character that drives the conflict forward like a freight train is Ron Eldard's Lester, a local officer who's essentially a nice guy but gets too personally involved with something he has no business getting into. The more the relationship between he and the lonely Kathy escalates the more it negatively impacts his ability to see the situation reasonably and act accordingly. Not only as an officer of the law, but as a human being. That's about all I can give way without spoiling anything.

Paul Haggis' Crash, which won Best Picture in 2005 explored issues very similar to the one covered in this film, but it lacked the real, raw emotional power that resonates throughout this film. With Crash, I was always aware I was watching a movie (albeit a very well made one) and that these people were brought together not by circumstances, but screenwriting. I never got that feeling watching this as it doesn't strike a false note once. Every single action each character takes in this story I believe they would take. I believe anyone in their situation would take it.

There's a tendency when criticizing films these days for everyone to dismiss any movie that has tragedy befall it's characters as "contrived." I hate it as much as the next person when a movie tries to elicit unearned sympathy. In this movie though, it's earned. Sometimes in life good people do bad things to one another and tragedy occurs. That's a fact. We can choose to look the other way or admit to ourselves when a film like this comes along that we can learn something from. It's honest. Even it's characters are honest with one another when they're behaving at their absolute worst.

In some ways, this film reminded me of Todd Field's In The Bedroom, but even that film contained a character that could clearly be identified as the villain. Here, the situation's trickier and as a result more morally complex. I'm sure many would identify Eldard's cop as the villain, but even he starts out with pure intentions and is essentially trying to do the right thing by helping this woman. What he doesn't count on is how he'll feel about her and how that will effect his relationship with his wife and kids and Behrani's family. He's not trying to hurt anyone, but as the situation worsens so do his decisions and his prejudices slowly begin to surface. Morally he is the most flawed character as he ends up stepping way over the line and abusing his authority as an officer of the law. Supposedly women audiences really hated the Kathy character because they thought she was "too weak." But Kathy can't reach out to her family for help because she's afraid what they'll think of her. Anyone else would be too.

This movie, based on the 1999 bestselling novel of the same name by Andre Dubus III, was written and directed by Vadim Perelman, who's best known for his work on televison commercials and videos. Amazingly this is his first feature film and he was drawn to the material when he read the book on a flight to one of his commercial shoots. He has said the book spoke to him personally as he himself was an immigrant from Russia and could relate to many of the story's themes. I haven't read the book (although I definitely will now) but I have the feeling Dubus had to have been pleased with this adaptation.

The movie was shot beautifully by Roger Deakins, who is probably the best cinematographer working today and whose impressive credits include The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo and A Beautiful Mind. The ominous, foggy coastal shoreline becomes as much of a character as anybody else in the film the way Deakins shoots it, as he never ceases to amaze when he's behind the lens.

Perelman made his first order of business obtaining Ben Kingsley for the role of Colonel Behrani and what a wise choice he made as I can't imagine anyone else doing this role the justice he does. Kingsley won the Best Actor Academy Award in 1982 for Gandhi, but his performance here is better. Luckily, the Academy did see fit to nominate him for again in 2003 for his work here, but unfortunately this time Sir Ben lost to Sean Penn for Mystic River. Having now seen both performances I can officially say Kingsley was robbed, which is no slight on Penn, who's one of our finest actors. If we were talking about Penn's performance that same year in 21 Grams then we might have a contest. Maybe.

As Kathy, Jennifer Connelly goes places emotionally few actresses are capable of and her work in this joins Hilary Swank's in Million Dollar Baby as one of the best female performances of the modern era. To see an actress put it all out there like she does in this film and not be recognized or rewarded with so much as a nomination is pretty disheartening. What she does in this film isn't easy and I have to admit I was exhausted just watching her. Connelly fans will also be happy to know that the movie's ending does include a scene with her on a pier, which I'm starting to think might be something that's written into her contract.

Shohreh Aghdashloo did receive a well deserved nomination for Best Supporting Actress here for her nuanced work as the Colonel's wife, Nadi. An Iranian immigrant herself she brings an aura of authenticity to the role as a woman who can barely understand a word of English, but could teach her husband a few lessons in sympathy and understanding. She has a limited idea of the atrocity that's happening around her, but has unending devotion to her family and cares for Connelly's character, taking her in like a wounded bird. She accomplishes all of this with limited screen time and even less dialogue.

I've read some reviews that cite Ron Eldard as the weak link in the movie, but when you share the screen with Kingsley and Connelly that's understandable. I thought he did an excellent job in a very, very tough role. Best known for his t.v. work in the '90's on shows like Men Behaving Badly and E.R., he's never really had a platform in feature films to show what he's got. Other actors would have played Lester as a stereotypical jerk cop but Eldard, under Perelman's skilled direction, knows to play him as a good guy who's slightly off his rocker and kind of stupid. He's got a goofy, normal guy charm that makes you not take him seriously which technically shouldn't work, but here it makes the events and his behavior more frightening and realistic.

As I reached the last quarter of this film I have to admit I had a difficult time watching. By this point the suspense becomes unbearable, the characters' actions more irrational and the movie becomes a pressure cooker just waiting to boil over. In an interview on the bonus features, Eldard says the saddest thing about the movie is that everything could have been avoided had one of the characters just stopped, took a deep breath and assessed the situation. I felt that toward the end of the film one of the characters did stop and decide all of this just isn't worth it and reaches out to end it. Unfortunately, this act is misinterpreted and leads to further tragedy.

There's an alternate ending included, but it's all about vengeance (which isn't what this story is about) and was justifiably scrapped in favor of the one they used, which is equally tragic, but in tone with the rest of the film. When this movie was over I couldn't help but feel angry and have conflicted thoughts about being a citizen in a country where this could conceivably happen. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised at all if something like this actually has happened. This film touched me on levels no recent one has, but I can't say I'm eager to watch it again. It was an ordeal to sit through, but an experience not easily forgotten.

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