When people think of December, what comes to mind? Most think of holiday cheer, of the Christmas lights and good food, of seeing old friends and family, and so on and so forth. Not for the movie critic. This is the Month of the Really Good Film, and in turn that means the Month of Depressing Films. After all, most of the really powerful movies are sad. House of Sand and Fog fits in that category quite well.
The movie, based on the novel by Andre Dubus, tells the tale of Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) and Massoud Behrani (Ben Kingsley), two people from very different backgrounds that fight over the same suburban house. After being evicted for little reason, Massoud and his family move in for about a fourth of the actual market price, with the intention of reselling the home at full value so that they can finally have a normal life in America. Though he is legally entitled to the property, Kathy feels he is not doing the moral thing, as the house was given to her by her father and was taken away from her by mistake. Soon, the situation escalates to something uncontrollable, and the end result may be more than each party is willing to bear.
Well directed and acted, House of Sand and Fog is inherently good. Two of the best performances of the year come from this movie, as Connelly and Kingsley are both exceptional, Oscar-worthy. Connelly goes far beyond the character needed for A Beautiful Mind, in which she was given an Oscar, though the character she plays is not especially likeable. Kingsley commands every scene he is in, though it is little surprise; he seems to get better with age. Kingsley's character is a feast for men; this man has so many angles and sides to him that it is impossible to predict what his reaction will be. Ron Eldard also turns in one of his better performances, though the bigger names around him might blot him out.
The acting is complimented by the direction of Vadim Perelman, who also helped write the film; every scene is beautifully shot in every respect - the angle, color and cinematics are wonderful. The sky and ocean shots are especially great, and Perelman seems to have the timing for every action of the story down perfectly.
Though sensational in many ways, House of Sand and Fog is not without flaws, flaws not within the construction of the film but in the very heart of it. These flaws are more a matter of opinion than anything else, but because of them it is very hard to fully accept the story. The problem is that this is a movie of antagonists. There are no protagonists in this movie. Connelly's character is an angry and bitter woman so helpless that she can't do anything better than harass another wise nice family. Furthermore, all of this is her fault to begin with: she didn't read her mail. As for Kinsley's character, he is much more likeable, but since the movie questions the morality of the decision to stay in the house, it is in turn questioning the morality of his character. The house was taken from Kathy, but Massoud did not take it from her; yet, there are many moral questions raised in regards to the man. Then there is Eldard's character, who quickly spirals from a nice guy to an absolutely immoral and horrible person.
The problem is not in how the characters are, but in the fact that we are supposed to like, or at least feel sorry for such people. I did feel sorry for Kingsley's character, since he is the one who is harassed and given the most burden to carry, the most decisions to make, but felt little pity for anyone else. I do understand that this movie is meant to show that people on both sides of an argument can be in the right, but if that is so, it is not shown effectively. The movie tries very hard to persuade us, the audience, that Connelly's character has reason to be harassing a nice family, but throughout most of the movie I just couldn't accept that; her character just isn't very likeable, and thus it is hard to relate to such a person.
That being said, House of Sand and Fog is enganging and interesting, but did not immerse me as much as I wanted to be. I wanted to be thrust into this movie and given a chance to really feel for two sides of the situation, but really came out only feeling for Kingsley's character, and even then only slightly. I don't need to like the characters, but it seems as though the movie was expecting me to. So, throughout the course of the movie, I was captivated but not completely hooked; something felt missing, but only slightly.
However, House of Sand and Fog makes up for much of this in the last half hour of the movie, where things spiral out of control. Everything in the rest of the movie is a build-up to this powerful ending, which will make your head tingle.
House of Sand and Fog makes me think of another film that received much praise, In the Bedroom. Though not specifically similar in story, they are alike in many other ways; both are subtle, depressing and are made for the ending. When I compare the two, I do not find House of Sand and Fog nearly as compelling. It is a valiant effort and should be admired for its exceptional acting and good, but not exceptional, story, but there problems that keeping this from being as powerful as it should be.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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