House of Sand and Fog is perhaps the year's best movie, a tense, exceptionally acted drama that will resonate long after you've left the theater.
Even if House of Sand and Fog settled for being only a psychological thriller, it would likely be one of the best films of the year. But there's more, much more, swirling beneath the surface tension of director Vadim Perelman's bracing debut. This is an artful allegory of the American Dream from the perspective of protagonists with nothing in common except the piece of real estate representing that ideal for them.
For Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), the house sitting on that seaside property is the prosperity and family memory that we as a nation sometimes take for granted. And, as some Americans do, Kathy lets it slip away. As a barely recovering alcoholic reeling from a broken marriage, Kathy is in such a funk that she won't even open her mail. Her depression is nothing compared to what her neglect will cause.
For Col. Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an Iranian immigrant who served the now-deposed Shah, the house represents his path to the American Dream, basically resuming the Iranian Dream his family lived before fleeing a coup. Because Kathy ignores tax notices, Massoud buys the house for a fraction of its value, planning to make a profit that will ensure his wife's comfort and son's college education. The two jobs he's working, both well below his stature and potential, won't manage that. But dreams can become nightmares, and so it is in House of Sand and Fog.
Chances are some readers will decide who should own the house just from the previous two paragraphs. That's human nature, but whatever your choice, Perelman will probably change your mind at least once during the film.
Nobody is a hero here. Massoud and Kathy each do callous and compassionate things to each other. An angry confrontation may lead to a simple act of mercy. An attempt to smooth the situation may go terribly wrong. The ethos of the dispute constantly shifts, whether it's because of Kathy and Massoud's behavior or perhaps an impulsive act by someone on the periphery. Everything counts in Perelman and Shawn Lawrence Otto's screenplay, adapted from Andre Dubus' novel. Dubus also wrote the novella that became In the Bedroom a couple of years ago, a hint of the tragic propulsion of this story.
Such raw emotions and frustrations are displayed here. In the exceedingly capable hands of Kingsley and Connelly, the central roles become symbols, of a kind, for the melting pot mentality. Not the idealistic blending of cultural ingredients, but the scrapings left behind that sit ignored until they curdle. House of Sand and Fog is perfectly acted, not only by the two stars, but a small ensemble fully aware of their characters' back stories, informing each gesture and expression along the way.
The knockout among the supporting actors is Shohreh Aghdashloo, a movie star in Iran, who portrays Massoud's wife, Nadi, with what can only be described as earthy elegance. Nadi is so pure at heart (and a product of a male-dominated society) that she doesn't realize how dark Massoud's past and present truly are until someone literally spells it out for her. She willingly gives first aid to her husband's nemesis, adding another level of conflict to Kathy's predicament. Aghdashloo's performance is a discovery of the highest order.
On the other hand, Kathy's accomplice in this tragedy, a guiltily married cop (Ron Eldard) lives on tainted morals, leading him to some of the film's most melodramatic turns. Yet the sincerity of everyone's bad moves around him make those stretches in logic a bit less preposterous. Someone must be a villain of sorts for this stalemate of Massoud and Kathy's values to be sorted out.
And that battle of wills - one brittle, one ramrod stern - is left to the year's best male-female acting combination. Kingsley is brilliant, perhaps the best acting job of 2003, eliciting sympathy and contempt with each reluctant move. Massoud is a man not given to displays of emotion, only propriety, so his outbursts are shocking. Connelly's Kathy is just the opposite, portrayed by the actor with so much intensity that her Oscar for A Beautiful Mind no longer seems like beginner's luck. Separately, they reveal the true nature of their roles. Together they burn a hole in the screen.
House of Sand and Fog is a major accomplishment, a film that keeps a hushed audience in their seats when the end credits roll, then lives on beyond the theater. After the show, I stopped for gas and paid a clerk who appeared to be from the same region as Massoud. I remembered scenes of Massoud working the same dull job, counting every penny, stripped by fate of power and possessions, and how he yearned to have both again. It takes a powerful movie to make real life seem clearer, to make a total stranger someone who is, to some degree, better understood. House of Sand and Fog is that kind of film.
House of Sand and Fog
Director: Vadim Perelman
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ron Eldard, Frances Fisher, Jonathan Ahdout
Screenplay: Vadim Perelman, Shawn Lawrence Otto, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III Rating: R; profanity, violence, sexual situations
Running time: 126 min.