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By David Grove | December 22, 2003

“House of Sand and Fog” is a tragic drama with mystery overtones that features two characters who make the wrong choices at the wrong time. What’s interesting is that these choices seem right to the characters and even to us, we imagine, had we been in the characters’ shoes. The film’s also about the relationship between an Iranian immigrant desperate to recapture his past glory and prestige inside the American Dream and a fractured young American woman who feels very much like an immigrant in her own country.

The Iranian in question is Behrani(wonderfully played by Ben Kingsley),a former high-ranking Iranian Colonel now reduced to petty labor here in America as he works odds jobs – he moonlights at a convenience store – all the while hiding this from his wife(Shohreh Aghdashloo)and son(Jonathan Ahdout)while he plots to achieve financial independence. Then, as if the devil had constructed the chain of events himself, a wonderfully tranquil-looking house becomes available at auction for a bargain basement price. The house’s owner is Kathy(Jennifer Connelly), a drug addict so depressed with life that she neglected to heed a series of tax bill notices that had been piling up in her mailbox for months. The Sheriff arrives one day to evict her, although the Deputy(Ron Eldard)is much more understanding, so much so that he and Kathy become lovers. The tax charge is bogus, but how does Kathy get her house back? What will her soon-to-be-visiting mother think when she arrives and sees that the house is gone, and finds out, as well, that Kathy’s marriage has dissolved? Why should Behrani care? Can he sell the house for a tidy profit and take the first step to regaining his former status in society?

The relationship between Behrani and Kathy, the rivalry and passionate sense of entitlement regarding the house, is at the heart of “House of Sand and Fog” and it’s a very interesting film relationship, partly because of the cultural differences between the two characters. Is Kathy desperate enough to want to plot the murder of Behrani and his family to get back her house? What can we make of Behrani’s murky career inside the Iranian military? Is there something horrible there as we might expect from someone who worked for the Shah of Iran? Why is he so conscientious in his job as an overnight gas station clerk, monitoring every little detail?

Because Behrani is a Middle-Eastern man, Iranian no less, we can predict a lot of his attitudes and it’s really interesting to see how Middle-Eastern culture, presumed by North Americans to be overbearing and restrictive, meshes with life in America. Ben Kingsley, one of the most intelligent actors alive, draws a very interesting character who, much like Connelly’s character, is obsessed with improving his current circumstances. Key to all of this is the house and what a house it is, surrounded in clouds and mist and lots of great movie fog that almost cries out for a big lighthouse for someone to jump out of. We can see why Connelly’s character, broken by a failed life and marriage, is so desperate to get the house back and is so angry when Behrani alters the house to make it his own when, we know, the house really should still belong to Connelly’s character. The house is all either of these characters has – Behrani needs the house to build a better life and Kathy needs the house to keep her sanity and resist suicide.

Complicating this interesting relationship is an unnecessary third character in the Deputy who begins an affair with Kathy and then conspires with her to get the house back. The character, Lester, even goes so far as to visit Behrani and, in the film’s weakest scene, threatens Behrani, none too subtly, with the possibility of deportation. It’s an outrageous scene. Why wouldn’t Behrani just complain to Lester’s superiors, especially given the politically correct times we live in? What does Lester hope to accomplish? Is Behrani likely to be intimidated by this? He might, if there was something sensitive in his past, but there’s very little mention of that, and, besides, Ron Eldard’s just out of his league in the same frame with Ben Kingsley anyway. Director Vadim Perelman should’ve written this character out of the film on the spot, but this doesn’t detract too much from the overall strength of the film.

“House of Sand and Fog” might’ve been a great film without Lester, the Deputy, getting in the way of the key relationship between Behrani and Kathy, and I think this is an example of how a film based on a novel can be too faithful to the source material when some cold-blooded cutting would’ve made for a better film as Sam Raimi did with his brilliant film “A Simple Plan.” Still, it’s hard to be mad at first-time director Vadim Perelman who had to beg and plead novelist Andre Dubus III for the film rights to the book. “House of Sand and Fog” is a very good film with a special performance by Ben Kingsley and the house is perfect for the film in that it looks both creepy and nice, the kind of place where you’d want to die and quite possibly might.
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