Easy answers are hard to come by in 'Sand and Fog'

by Rebecca Leffler | 2/16/04 6:00am

In China, it's the year of the Monkey. In Iraq, it's the year of freedom from Saddam's rule. And in Hollywood, it's the year of the adaptation. Once upon a time, someone had the novel -- pun intended -- idea to turn popular fiction into popular cinema. Today, film adaptations of popular novels are more ubiquitous than Paris Hilton at B-list parties. The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "Cold Mountain" swept the holiday season box office, and the upcoming "The Stepford Wives" (an adaptation of Ira Levin's novel) and "Troy" (an adaptation of Homer's "Iliad") hope to follow in their footsteps. From the depths of this sea of revision comes "House of Sand and Fog," based on the heartwrenchingly tragic novel by Andre Dubus III.

"House of Sand and Fog," which marks Vadim Perelman's directing debut, is not your typical Hollywood movie. Like this awards season crush, "Mystic River," the film coats moral dilemma with character sympathy leaving the spectator lost somewhere between right and wrong and unable to distinguish between the two. There are no clear villains and no opportune or life-changing incidents; instead the film is powered by the unhurried escalation of ostensibly simple decisions into a chilling final tragedy.

As the title suggests, the film is about a house. This house is not a lavish mansion, just a modest piece of coastal California real estate that pits the film's protagonists (or shall I say antagonists?) against one another. One is an exiled Iranian military officer in the Shah's army named Massoud Behrani (Sir Ben Kingsley). The other is a recovering addict-turned- housecleaner named Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly).

This little house tries to tear a family apart and brings two lost souls together. Both parties are in the right, and, at the same time, both are in the wrong. Kathy inherited the house from her father, and was unlawfully evicted because of her failure to pay a business tax that she did not owe. Behrani, however, purchased the property legally at auction and wishes to sell the property for more than twice what he paid in the hopes of returning to the life of luxury to which he and his family were accustomed in Iran. Behrani is not simply after the money, however and Nicolo is seeking more than just a place to sleep at night.

Who is right? A man struggling between moral rectitude and his patriarchal duty and love for his family? Or a victimized young woman recovering from addiction whose husband recently left her and whose house was wrongfully taken from her? Usually in a movie, the spectator is forced to take sides, to root for the "good guys." Yet in this film, the spectator must spend the whole film deciding with whom to sympathize.

The lead characters are so rich with detail that it is impossible not to feel for them in some way. Kingsley delivers yet another powerfully frightening performance as an Iranian immigrant struggling to regain his honor and capture the American dream for his family. Kingsley, who was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Behrani, transforms himself from the witty British knight we all know and love into a stern Iranian fighting for justice. Kingsley evinces his classic reserve yet, when angered, is convincingly volatile.

The beginning scenes of the film frame Behrani's character near-perfectly. The camera follows him as he is humiliated by being forced to work as a construction worker by day and in a gas station convenience store by night. But then he cleans himself up, puts on a suit and drives home in his Mercedes to return home to his family so as to maintain his family's respect and dignity.

Shohreh Aghdashloo plays Behrani's wife, Nadi, and is, in my opinion, the most deserving candidate for the Academy award for Best Supporting Actress for which she has been nominated. Aghdashloo maintains the powerful reserve manifest in her husband yet challenges his patriarchal authority, and displays her strength and kindness as she selflessly helps Kathy on more than one occasion. A film star in her native Iran yet virtually unknown in America until recently, Aghdashloo speaks very little in the film yet is perhaps the most present character, and her elegance and resolute diffidence keep the film on its toes.

As Behrani and his wife cling desperately to their former life, they also seek acceptance as American citizens and try to build a better life for their son, Esmail. When his son expresses pity for Kathy, Behrani tells him, "Do not feel bad. Americans they do not deserve what they have. They have the eyes of small children who are forever looking for the next source of distraction, entertainment, sweet taste in the mouth." For Behrani, the house represents not only the pinnacle of the American dream, but also the dream of returning to his luxurious Iranian life where he, as a colonel, held power and prestige.

Jennifer Connelly is fashionably unglamorous as a recovering alcoholic fighting for her house. Though she was not nominated for an Oscar this year, Connelly would have been well-deserving. Her role as Kathy has proven her to be more than just passive eye-candy posing as an actress, and it is her tacit hostility that keeps the film moving.

But this film, like its protagonists, is not perfect by any means. Ron Eldard is unconvincing as Lester, a police officer struggling with his choice to leave his wife and children to love and to help Kathy. However, though he nudges Kathy back into her addictions, leaves his wife and children and violently threatens the Behranis, Eldard somehow remains a sympathetic character throughout most of the movie. The scenes where he interacts with his wife and children, however, are laughable at best, reinforcing the cliched conversations he instigates with Kathy throughout the film. Yet the love affair subplot between Kathy and her uniformed lover is saved by Connelly's downplayed, unpretentiously elegant acting.

Neither Behrani nor Kathy nor Lester are objectively likable, and it becomes unclear who to "root for" as their hasty decisions escalate. The story itself is a bit contrived and scarcely believable, but the psychological torment of its main characters keeps the spectator intrigued, and the final sequences will make your skin crawl to the extent that you'll never look at a house in the same way again.

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