House of Sand and Fog
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House of Sand and Fog

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Usually when a story deals with conflict the natural course seems to be to take sides, to make one party right and the other wrong. Unfortunately, in real life this is rarely the case, usually each side has valid points. Accepting this fact is even more unusual in film where the audience typically wants a good guy and bad guy, both clearly defined. With House of Sand and Fog the lines are grey, each of the leads is sympathetic and the audience is pushed to try to see both sides. Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) is a young woman at the bottom of the emotional barrel. She is trying to put her life back together after her husband leaves her, desperately trying to conquer her addiction to alcohol and reestablish her relationship with her estranged family. While in the depts. Of her depression routine things like bills simply get ignored, soon her house payments are in arrears and the county is selling her home for back taxes. The man that purchases the house is Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), former officer in the Iranian air force, now here in America attempting to build a new life for his family and gain their respect. Massoud has sunk everything into the purchase of this house, he is at the verge of being completely broke and is ashamed to let his family know just how dire the situation actually is.

Rather than depending on the standard good versus evil for the dramatic conflict this film juxtaposes two people, each very deserving of the audience’s empathy, caught in the most desperate of times. The closest thing there is to a human personification of a amoral character is Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), the deputy sheriff who is charged with evicting Kathy and becomes overly emotionally attached to her. He has a wife and family, unlike the two leads here his moral position is shaky, his motivation based on lust rather than desperation. The American dream is at the heart of the story here. Kathy thought she had it and loss it, Massoud seeks it and Lester turns his back on it. All of the main characters are in deep denial. For Kathy her depression induced semi-coma result in the loss of her family home. Massoud has to lie to his family, unable to let them help him through his difficult financial problems. Rather than turn to their families for help both characters ultimately suffer from that first and perhaps deadliest of all sins, hubris. In a real way both characters have a moral responsibility for their dilemmas yet both are externalizing the blame.

Both of the leads here have that coveted golden Oscar in their homes, both deserved it, they are incredible actors. Connelly is beautiful but rarely depends on her physical attractiveness, what holds your attention is her ability to weave an emotional tapestry that draws the audience in. There is a fragile aspect to her performance, treading the fine line but never falling into the weak woman stereotype. Connelly is able to take a simple affectation, like her character’s return to smoking, and uses it to provide a visual device, showing how close she has come to returning to her addiction. It’s the little touches like this that makes her performance a wonder to watch. With such a powerful actress the male lead must be up to the task, with Kingsley the match was made. Kingsley exudes the emotional turmoil of his character. The same way Gandhi’s inner strength was emoted from this actor, here the foibles of the hapless Massoud pour out. Although both characters are responsible there is no ‘poor me’ feeling to distract the audience. Both are adults that have made mistakes and are now paying a great price for them. Eldar is the closest thing to a dislikable character. No matter what the viewers have to have someone to hate. Eldar is the potentially cheating husband, an officer of the court that uses his position to further his own lust. What we the audience receive here are performances that you can watch repeatedly, each time coming away with additional insight into the characters. One breakout performance is that of Shohreh Aghdashloo as the wife of Massoud. There is a quite dignity to her performance, an inner strength. Her presentation makes the audience wonder why Massoud just doesn’t trust his wife with the truth of the situation.

This is the freshman opus for director Vadim Perelman, I have to say I greatly look forward to his work as he matures in the field. He seems to realize the dream cast he obtained and gives them the room they need to ply their craft. His use of staging is incredible, each scene like a painting of a grand master. The backdrop is often bleak, visually reflecting the emotional impact of the writing and acting. His lighting choices are such that the film never sinks to the cheap thriller level, the tired old things that go bump in the night faire. In the hands of this director a story that could have easily sunk to the level of a low class thriller becomes a gripping drama worthy of the accolades it has accumulated.

Universal hits another home run with the presentation of this film on DVD. As usual, the anamorphic video is defect free with an expressive color palette. The Dolby 5.1 audio enfolds you with a rich soundtrack. It’s nice to watch a film where explosions do not punctuate every other scene, where you can hear the dialogue and understand the characters. There is a good balance to the choice of extras here. The commentary track offers the insights of the director, the author of the original novel and Mr. Kingsley. Each offers information as to the creation of this film; each will hold your interest. Rather than the typical ‘he’s so great here’ these people are willing to bare themselves a bit in order to provide the audience with greater understanding of not only the story but the production as well. There are also several deleted scenes accompanied by a director’s comments. He explains some of his decision making process as to why these scenes where no in the final presentation. If you are tired of mindless flicks that just fill time invest in this film, you will not be sorry.

Posted 3/17/04

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