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HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Frances Fisher, Kim Dickens, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Director: Vadim Perelman
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Dreamworks
Features: See Review
Length: 126 Minutes
Release Date: March 30, 2004

"I have taken us so far off our course. But now it is time to go to our destiny."

Film ****

Very seldom has a there been a film with a powerful effect like House of Sand and Fog. This is a pure contemporary cinematic telling of a Greek tragedy if there ever was one. The film has a moody tone throughout, not even beginning to allow a single happy moment to play its way into the story. It presents us complete and complex characters that are equally sympathetic, despite the serious dilemma they are faced with, which challenges their morals very much in the process.

The centerpiece of the story is a clash over rightful ownership of a split-level home overlooking a gorgeous California shore. The owner of the home is Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a recovering addict who was left the home after her father died. Eight months have passed since her husband walked out on her, and since then she fell into a slump of depression which no doubt resulted in her falling behind on tax payments for the property.

Avoiding the warnings from the county, Kathy is stunned when she awakes to find herself given an eviction notice. The reason is for non payment of a business tax she claims she doesn't owe in the first place. Despite the possibility of the eviction happening due to a bureaucratic decision, the house is put up for auction and Kathy is soon living in her car. As Kathy is attempting to make the wrong things right in her attempt to reclaim her property, it turns out that it has already been purchased by a buyer for a fraction of the going market rate.

The buyer is Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an Iranian immigrant and former top-ranking colonel in the air force. He came to the States a few years ago following the deposing of his ruler, when he was then force to flee for his life. Now, Behrani works two jobs; a day job working highway construction and a night job as a convenient store clerk.

Making just enough money to get by, he purchases the house simply as a means of planning a new future, as he plans to make some improvements, resell the property at market value. By doing this, Behrani guarantees a better life for himself and his wife. Another benefit is that he will have enough cash to provide a college education for his son. In addition, the home itself, as well as its staggering ocean side view, resembles the exact bungalow the family had in their native Iran.

But Kathy is nevertheless relentless in trying to gain back what she feels is hers. She is nightly sleeping in her car outside the home. As Behrani's suspicions of her arise, she sees him as nothing more than a man who stole her home. In a surprising turn, she gains sympathy from Lester Burton (Ron Eldard) the very person who assisted in her eviction. Upon a chance meeting, Lester, a married man, is soon drawn to Kathy's grief, and beauty. An affair is soon ignited

Before long, the two are shacked up in a motel room together, and Lester's support of Kathy takes his authority level over the line when he confronts Behrani on the property, harassing his family with a threat of being deported. Instead of resolving things, it only worsens the tension. Kathy also tries consulting with the family. In a heartbreaking scene, she tries to reason with Behrani's wife Nadi, (Shohreh Aghdashloo, in a well deserved Oscar nominated performance), who barely speaks English. Though by now Behrani sees the young woman as a threat himself, Nadi treats the emotionally wounded girl like that of a loving mother.

What is most appreciative about House of Sand and Fog is the way it avoids the conventions of a standard thriller, and presents its characters as real and as human as can be. Both Kathy and Behrani are sympathetic, and yet at the same time have minor flaws in each other's lives, with Kathy handling her certain addictions and Behrani unable to control his temper. In an ordinary thriller, things would've easily escalated into an over-the-top scenario, but not here. The clash over the property is a battle driven by real human nature, and the end result is one so mind-blowing and shattering, I dare for you to say that it won't stay with you long after your initial viewing.

First time writer and director Vadim Perelman, working from the novel by Andre Dubus III, has delivered an utterly powerful debut piece. Jennifer Connelly and especially Ben Kingsley deliver strong and rich portrayals. Kingsley was nominated for his work here, and the nomination was ever so deserved. His performance ranks with his greatest work to date, like Gandhi and Sexy Beast. Nothing would demonstrate my point more than a scene late in the film where Behrani is overcome with devastating emotional following an unexpected tragedy. I don't want to reveal too much, but I can tell you that I was struck very deeply by this scene.

House of Sand and Fog is certainly one of the best and most gripping dramatic films to come around in some time. It paints a picture that is both powerful and sad and it keeps with the mood of it all throughout the movie. If anything, be prepared for a stunning and challenging conclusion.

Video ****

Dreamworks, who at one point I considered to be the absolute top quality DVD distributor, demonstrate their greatness for outstanding presentations with this stunning and well-handled image transfer. The anamorphic picture does immense justice to a film that is equally involved in its images as it is with the story. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is brought to even larger scale in this outstandingly detailed presentation. In additions, the overall picture is of pure sharpness, and the colors appear as tremendously natural as possible. Lastly, and thankfully, the studio made a wise decision to issue only a widescreen version.

Audio ***1/2

Given that I really wasn't expecting much from the audio area, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of quality I found in the 5.1 mix. Although it may seem that dialogue is the only source to base upon, the film has additional bonuses in terms of what is picked up. The moody score by James Horner is a big factor in this regard. What's more, there are even some moments where the elements in the set piece made for a good sense of range amongst the channels. Exceptionally well done.

Features ***

Dreamworks made sure to include some goods for this critically acclaimed piece. Included is an intriguing commentary with director Vadim Perelman, Ben Kingsley and novelist Andre Dubus III.  Also featured is a behind the scenes featurette which runs a decent 15 minutes, deleted scenes with optional commentary, Shohreh Aghdashloo's audition tape, and a photo gallery.

Summary:

House of Sand and Fog is pure cinematic drama at its highest. Both a film of striking images and strong human tragedy, this is a strongly effective film that in addition is a career triumph for both Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly.