House of Sand and Fog is nothing if not sad. In fact, it’s almost gratuitously sad. So I’ll start by saying: only go and see this movie if you’re ready for a big sad sledgehammer. Yet it’s also gritty and challenging and morally ambiguous, which is always nice.
The plot turns on the sale of a beachside property in America to an exiled Irani colonel (Ben Kingsley) and his family. Simple enough? No. The house has been wrongly repossessed from housecleaner Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), who is connected intimately to it and wants it back quickly.
Kingsley’s character, Massoud Behrani, has wasted no time in adding a balcony with a view, and declares that he won’t sell the house back for anything less than four times what he paid for it.
So the long and twisting battle begins, with numerous front-lawn confrontations between the two antagonists. Behrani asks why he should be made to pay for the incompetence of the bureaucrat that bungled the repossession. Nicolo can’t see why her house has been stripped from her, because of a trivial technicality.
Both characters are deeply flawed, and it’s difficult to know who to cheer for. Kingsley is masterful as Behrani, by turns loving and unfeeling, graceful and rigid, hardworking and uncaring. Connelly is less believable as the housecleaner loser, but she does a good “righteous indignation” look and keeps the narrative a healthy shade of melancholy.
Of course, nothing’s as simple as a sold house in this movie – and the intermittent cascades of fog that sweep through the surrounds must be symbolic. Behrani is hiding a second life of menial labour jobs, and Nicolo can’t tell her family that her hubby’s been gone for eight months and she’s drinking again.
But the house is a neat little stage for playing out some relevant themes of ownership, alienation and a bureaucratic system that pits ordinary people against each other. Land, in this film as always, is one of the things that all people hold dear.
The supporting cast is a mixed bag – Behrani’s wife (Aghdashloo) deserved her Oscar nomination for her depiction of a courageous but confined woman. But Ron Eldard as pining cop Lester Burdon never really nails the mid-life crisis feel, and his part suffers accordingly.
Overall, the film is good. Perelman’s direction is unconventionally slow and touching for most of the movie. But then the narrative moves from a gentle stroll to a galloping ending that rivals the tragedies of that mad butcher, Shakespeare. Maybe I’m not hard enough. Maybe subtlety is a dying craft. But wave after wave of tragedy can cheapen the whole effect. House of Sand and Fog goes dangerously close to such an outcome.
Directed by Vadim Perelman