House of Sand and Fog

dir: Vadim Perelman
[img_assist|nid=998|title=Bleak House|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=420|height=595]
Films with House in the title usually suck. Not only do they suck, but they generally suck very badly. I mentioned this recently in a review of House of 1000 Corpses, one of the dumbest movies to have the word in its title. If you think I’m lying, then allow me to retort: House Party, House on Haunted Hill (the remake), House, Houseguest, Life as a House, Cider House Rules, House of the Dead and who can forget (despite trying repeatedly) Big Momma’s House?

House of Sand and Fog is truly one of the better films with house in its title, but as I’ve shown that’s not saying much. This is an agonising emotional train-wreck of a movie that despite being in slow motion has none of its impact lessened, if anything it makes it even sadder. The characters feel like actual characters, and not caricatures, and are all flawed in their own ways. Perhaps it’s because of those flaws that they seem like real people. Far more attention is paid to issues of character than to plot, which makes for better drama but not necessarily ‘enjoyable’ viewing.

The acting is superlative across the board. Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly, Shohreh Aghdashloo and even Ron Eldard all do a decent job inhabiting their characters to the story’s benefit. And the coffee commercial cinematography and ubiquitous soundtrack all blend together to give this film that sheen of Oscarbait so conclusive that it’s a miracle it didn’t get a million of them on Oscar night.

Or perhaps not. It’s a pretty depressing film, where the American Dream of financial success and owning one’s own home leads to the destruction of so many lives. Before those of you mortgaged to the hilt and safe in the lap of aspirational luxury grab the pitchforks and light the torches, I’m not saying home ownership leads to madness and death. It is the essential characters of the people involved that leads them to their fates: who they are, what they are coping with or suffering from and how they choose to react to the circumstances that arise. It’s not my fault if the pressure of being bourgeois is too much for some people.

I’m being facetious of course, since this film is less about class warfare and more about pride, loss and human frailty.

Kathy Nivolo (the luminous Jennifer Connelly) is drowning in a deep depression at story’s start, mourning the breakdown of her marriage, recovering from drug addiction and failing to cope with the recent loss of her father. The county has, for mistaken reasons, seizes her house, evicts her and auctions the place off to the lowest bidder. Poor as she is there is little recourse for her apart from legal aid and falling off of the wagon. One of the deputies that helps evict her, Lester (Ron Eldard, in a solid performance, surprisingly) feels sympathy and attraction towards her, and tries to help her out. They begin a tentative relationship, despite the fact that Lester is married, with children.

Concurrently, a former Iranian Air Force Colonel, Massoud Behrani (that’s SIR Ben Kingsley to you, peasant) who has emigrated to the States with his family after the fall of the Shah (and the rise of the Ayatollahs, presumably) buys her house at auction. Fallen from his perch of privilege and wealth, pride and his wife’s pretensions to status require him to work two shitty jobs in order to maintain an illusion. He performs these jobs with dedication, but you can see how the dishonour of working in these (in his eyes) menial jobs wears upon his soul and wounds his pride further. Buying a bargain like Kathy’s house means that after some superficial work on it he can sell it for four times what he bought it for, and have enough money to take care of his son’s education and to get back that status he feels he deserves.

Coming as it does at a time when Cathy is least able to deal with it, she gets back on the booze, and her circumstances get progressively worse as it becomes more and more obvious that the County doesn’t care that they fucked up in kicking her out of her house, and the new owner doesn’t give a damn either. Broke, friendless, and living out of her car, she doesn’t really have much of either a carrot or a stick with which to get her daddy’s house back.

Enter the well-meaning but jumpy cop boyfriend. Wanting to help and protect Cathy as he does, but having a fundamentally flawed character, he tries to threaten and intimidate the Behrani family into giving up the house. As Massoud quite prophetically tells his son, weak men are dangerous because from that weakness they end up doing extremely stupid things in difficult situations. We get to find out just how true that is before the story is over.

Behrani himself is not without blame for the catastrophe that unfolds. Being a very stubborn, sometimes brutal man he exacerbates the situation with his aggression and his inability to see anyone else’s side, including that of his wife, who he beats when she contradicts him too much. My, what wonderful lessons he has to teach his son. Afterwards he tells his son not to follow his example, which as we all know works wonders. Because, you know, kids learn from what you tell them, not what you show them on a daily basis.

Regardless of that, despite the grimness of what this sounds like, Behrani is not without redeeming characteristics. There is a scene in the film towards the end where he shows a moment’s kindness towards Cathy which is profoundly heartbreaking, and without it the film would have been completely worthless, despite what precedes and follows it.

The acting, as previously stated is top notch. Kingsley doesn’t even really have to try that hard any more, he’s been doing this so well for so long that nothing is beyond him. Even the fact that he’s playing an Iranian guy who never needs to speak Farsi and barks out English in staccato sentences that would frighten a Marine drill sergeant is okay. His wife is well played but cries too much. The son is a good actor that will probably be getting work in Hollywood for the next ten years playing either terrorists or suicide bombers.

The cinematography is ‘noticeably’ beautiful. I say that with reservations in that there are a lot of unnecessary post card shots that don’t really add anything but try to elevate the story above the movie of the week, made for tv material that it really is. You have to commend the makers of this film, for, if nothing else, sticking with the ending. I’m sure a lot of execs would have tried to get them to change it, but it’s a very hardcore ending and worthy of the material and the effort invested in the story by the actors and the other people involved.

In the end it is our actions and not our intentions that matter; not what mistakes were made and what was done to us, but how we chose to act in response. This story exists as a sad example of what happens when people forget about the stuff that really matters in this life, not what we can get from it with our hard-earned hypocrisies and selfishness.

7 times any movie is improved solely by having Jennifer Connelly in it out of 10

‘You understand. Do not feel bad. Americans; they do not deserve what they have. They have the eyes of small children who are forever looking for the next source of distraction, entertainment, sweet taste in the mouth. We are not like them. We know rich opportunities when we see them. Do not throw away God's blessing.’ – Behrani, House of Sand and Fog