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House of Sand and Fog

2006-03-30 12:25

An ambitious voyage into one of America's darkest and most dangerous realms -- real estate -- "House of Sand and Fog" features an astonishing pair of lead performances and one of this year's most impressive directing debuts. If this movie isn't quite the contempo-Greek tragedy it wants to be, it's still a powerful, unforgettable meditation on fate, cultural collision and the morality of renovating a house that isn't really yours.

That said, it's clear that some people are really going to hate this movie. After the New York screening I attended, a middle-aged couple coming out the door ahead of me were complaining bitterly about all the things they could have been doing instead of watching "House of Sand and Fog." Their list included watching "Law & Order" reruns on TNT or shopping for their kids at Toys 'R Us; it's safe to say these folks were unhappy campers.

Maybe that was entirely their problem. I mean, if they were looking for a feel-good holiday picture that would make them happy to belong to the human race, then director Vadim Perelman's adaptation of the best-selling novel by Andre Dubus III was definitely the wrong choice. But as much of a film masochist as I am (and I've sat through both Herschell Gordon Lewis' "Blood Feast" and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's "Our Hitler," and in some sense enjoyed them) I kind of want to cut those irritated customers a break. "House of Sand and Fog" is a lot to take, and I'm not sure it entirely justifies the tremendous poleaxing -- the journey from bad to worse to worst of all -- that it delivers the audience before it's all over.

At first, this enigmatic fable about the battle for a dilapidated beach-town bungalow seems to possess the rhythms of a normal Hollywood movie. It's pretty to look at and it starts with one of those immigrant-family wedding scenes moviegoers have seen dozens of times. It has big stars, Oscar winners both, so my enraged friends may have felt comfortable; surely nothing truly awful was going to happen to these characters. Then the sheriff's deputies bust in and wake up depressed, alcoholic Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) to tell her that the house she inherited from her late father has been repossessed and will be sold at auction the next morning. She's out, as in get some cardboard boxes from Safeway and pack your stuff right now.

And that's not the half of it. The other side of this movie's equation is Massoud Behrani (Ben Kingsley), a ramrod-straight former colonel in the Shah's air force who now has his family ensconced in a fancy high-rise apartment in San Francisco. But Behrani's Mercedes-Benz and tailored Italian suits are nothing more than an elaborate facade. Unbeknownst to his wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and teenage son (Jonathan Ahdout), Behrani works days in construction and nights at a convenience store, struggling to maintain them in something like the lavish style they've come to expect.

In fact, we first see Behrani in a troubling but unexplained old-country flashback, as he stands on a terrace, wearing his fruit-salad uniform, and watches workmen cut down the pine trees behind his family's former beach house on the Caspian Sea. His wife is horrified at the loss of these stately old trees, and the whole episode is like a muddled premonition of the physical and emotional devastation that is to follow.

Back in the present tense (which is 1991), it turns out that Kathy's house has been seized because of a bureaucratic error -- she is believed to owe $500 in business taxes, but has never actually owned a business. By the time anybody figures that out, the house, which sits on a bluff not quite overlooking the ocean in a fictional Northern California county (the geography is purposefully vague), has already been sold off at a discount price. The buyer, of course, is Behrani, who has been eagerly scouring the classifieds for just such an opportunity and seizes the moment -- as any good immigrant would -- to convert his dwindling savings account into a juicy slice of the American middle-class pie.

Connelly and Kingsley are nothing short of astonishing, and Perelman switches the film's point-of-view -- and the audience's sympathies -- back and forth between them so deftly you're likely to get narrative whiplash. With her freckled, pellucid skin and her bottomless eyes, Connelly is a distractingly beautiful presence; at first I wasn't sure I could believe her as Kathy, who seems to embrace downward mobility with a passion. But this is a subtly impressive performance. Kathy drifts through the movie like a sad, wounded, spoiled ghost, drifting from one deadbeat motel to the next, working housecleaning gigs, all without quite registering the reality of the world around her.

Next page | Ben the embodiment of Persian aristocratic pride

Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley are brilliant in this brutal, tragic (and slightly overheated) saga of the darkest of American nightmares -- real estate.

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