July 12, 2004

House of Sand and Fog (Review)

When the author of the book of the same name (House of Sand and Fog) first published his work, his wife sent a copy of the book to Ben Kinsley. She told him that Colonel Behrani shared the same silhouette. And it is true. Behrani, one of the main characters in this movie, has the regal, proud bearing that Ben Kingsley can project on the screen. So the part fit him like a glove.

And that is one of the best things about The House of Sand and Fog — the casting.

That’s not to say the film isn’t good otherwise, but this is a film that is very focused on its characters. There is Behrani, who was once a colonel in the Iranian army and was highly regarded in that position. Exiled from Iran with the rise of the ayatollahs, he is reduced to working a convenience store and on a road crew. When he happens upon a small water-view home that is scheduled to be auctioned off for nonpayment of taxes, it evokes memories of the Caspian Sea and plans to dig his family out of their situation.

Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) has been evicted from the house that her father left her and her brother. She’s barely holding her life together in the wake of substance abuse problems. Convinced it is a bureaucratic mistake, she first turns to a lawyer to get the house back. But it’s not long before she is interacting with the Behranis directly.

Across this seemingly-predictable collision drives Lester (Ron Eldard), a deputy sheriff with an inclination to help Kathy and who we know has bent the law in the past in the cause of what he knew was right and “slept like a baby” afterward.

Mrs. Behrani (Nadi, played by Shohreh Aghdashloo) knows nothing of her husband’s struggle, having been sheltered from it, She’s innocent and is focused on the happiness of her recently-married daughter and her son who must soon attend a university. Even though she is a citizen, her biggest fear is deportation and death at the hands of religious and political enemies.

Such a plot could certainly remain in previously covered territory. And I’m not talking about tragedy, because we know the conflict ahead is going to be tragic in its nature simply because of the intensity of the characters involved. I mean that it could go the way of the Pacific Heights stalker genre. The characters there are flat and you know their whole story up front because there is no story.

House of Sand and Fog succeeds, instead, with incredible performances that reveal subtleties of characters that are simultaneously ugly and sympathetic.

One interesting message, intentional or not, was the recurring theme of bathrooms/washrooms. Behrani hides his shame by changing in a hotel washroom; Kathy hides her homelessness by cleaning herself in public restrooms. Later in the film, many important moments happen in bathrooms.

But bathrooms aside, this film is worth your time as an enjoyable, dark drama, expertly and methodically performed.

Posted by James at July 12, 2004 10:45 AM
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