Dir. Vadim Perelman, 2003, USA, 126 mins
Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Shohreh Aghdashloo
No cinematic seatbelt to bring you comfort and security, no evil psychopath to loathe and no Hollywood hero to save the day. Instead House of Sand and Fog offers an intense drama that explores human nature and the tragedy that can result when it is pushed to its limits. Like a pendulum, our sympathies swing from one actor to the other and Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley are both as powerful as ever, revelling in the complex characters originally created by novelist Andres Bubus III.
A cold light cuts through the fog rendering Kathy's (Connelly) profile in dark shadow as she sits in contemplation. Below her, in the background, ambulance lights speckle the night and an officer approaches asking, "Is this your house?". So begins this dramatic film letting the viewer know from the start that there will be no happy ever after. But when the story cuts back in time to tell how Kathy reached this point it never reveals what form this ending will take.
We learn that Kathy has failed to clear up a business tax bill she was erroneously sent and as a result the house she recently inherited from her father is put up for auction. Her husband has left her and a history of drink problems are alluded to, but Kathy also has a complex relationship with her family that is never fully revealed. When she is evicted her plight (and beauty) attract the affections of Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon (Eldard), who pledges to help her get her house back. Meanwhile Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani, a proud Iranian immigrant reduced to menial labour to support his wife and son, buys the house at a fraction of its worth. So begins a torrid chain of events that put both Behrani's future finances and pride, and Kathy's life, on the line. This personal battle pits two desperate people with their backs to the wall viciously against each other, and keeps the audience in an emotional quagmire of split allegiances; one that draws them deeper as the plot raises the stakes and the likelihood of a peaceful resolution diminishes.
Evoking the feeling of a wounded and desperate animal, Connelly portrays Kathy with a vulnerability that takes our sympathies with her even when she behaves irrationally. Kingsley, always the first choice to play Behrani, gives a deceptively simple performance. Using his whole body, from posture to eyes and face, he brings (at times with little or no dialogue) a detailed and remarkable conduit for Behrani's torment to the screen. The weak point here is Lester. Ron Eldard is left in an awkward position with his role; Lester's actions prove pivotal to events, but there is a lack of consistency in his actions that Eldard seems unable to overcome and thereby achieve the same level of authenticity as the rest of the cast.
Russian born Vadim Perelman drew from his own immigrant experiences for the core theme of the film, and his direction and screenplay amounts to an impressive feature debut. Although it always seems like there should be a simple resolution to Kathy and Behrani's problem, alas there is none, which brilliantly accentuates the audience's empathy with the characters. Something that the film meticulously builds upon and which heightens as the film reaches it tragic climax. There is no let-up or release from the tension, ultimately only reflection on the truth of a story well told.