House of Sand and Fog

Two lives crash headfirst into each other and begin a rapid descent in House of Sand and Fog, adapted from the best-selling novel by Andre Dubus III (it was one of Oprah's Book Club selections) are directed remarkably by Vadim Perelman, even better considering it is the first movie he's made. It's difficult to convincingly portray tragedy without coming off as melodramatic, but Perelman succeeds, aided by two Oscar winners, Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly, both in Oscar-worthy performances. Both lives center on a house, repossessed by the county from Kathy Lazaro, and auctioned off to Iranian immigrant Massoud Amir Behrani. Each person is reeling from some sort of personal tragedy, and the house represents something tangible they can grasp onto, a sort of bridge between the past and the future.

For Lazaro (Connelly, Hulk, A Beautiful Mind), the house was the last gift from her now deceased father. Her husband left her some months ago, and now she mopes around all day, in a daze at the mess her life is in. She ignores her mail, so she doesn't get the warnings from the county, who want her to pay off some business taxes. The county evicts her, wrongfully, as she later learns. She has little money, so she ends up sleeping in her car, and in the meantime tries to devote as much of herself as possible to regaining the house and returning to some sense of normalcy. For Behrani (Kingsley, Tuck Everlasting, The Triumph of Love), the house is a stepping-stone to a better future. In Iran, he was a well-respected Colonel for the Shah, with a large estate on the Caspian and lots of money. His family was forced to flee to the United States, and now they live beyond their means. Behrani works two menial jobs to try to support a lifestyle beyond his means. When he finds the house for auction, he knows it is a good deal, since he can spend some money to refurbish it and sell it for a nice profit.

The clash begins once Behrani refuses to move. He wants to the county to pay the market value of the house, not what he paid for it. And the longer Lazaro is out of the house, the more distressed she becomes. Against her lawyer's better judgment, she approaches Behrani, which leads to a sequence of events where they become increasingly intertwined in each other's lives. Both are desperate to have possession of the house, and it seems they are willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to keep it, but they go about it different ways. Lazaro constantly tries to appeal to Behrani's compassion, and when that doesn't work, she tries with his wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo, America So Beautiful, Maryam). Lazaro also begins dating Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard, Ghost Ship, Just a Kiss), one of the officers that evicted her, who tries to convince her to use intimidation to force Behrani out.

This doesn't work, since Behrani is ever the soldier and tactician. He has everything he needs in place, and the only thing that will get him out is a court order. He is sick of having to work jobs that are far below him and his station, and deep down just wants to provide for his family. He sees what he did as fair. The mix-up was the county's problem, so they should fix it themselves. Emotions will not sway him, since the emotions he feels for his family are much stronger than some lady who's having a run of hard times. Kingsley and Connelly's performance could not be more different, but they are entrancing to watch on screen. Kingsley seems like he is barely holding in a large amount of rage, while Connelly seems genuinely in despair. She is a broken woman, and every meeting with Behrani seems to take more life out of her. On the other hand, Kingsley just seems to become more resolute.

Eldard is also surprisingly good given his past efforts, but then again his character is something of an idiot (yet he still recognized a picture of the Shah on sight, something few people today could probably do). Aghdashloo also gives an impassioned performance. Perelman shoots the house often at night, backlit with fog streaming around. It gives the impression that the house is almost magical, representing what each person needs to live. The fog also represents the moral ambuguity that each character has to go through. The story gives them each a series of choices, and it seems that they are always making the wrong ones. They do what they think is right, but it never is. Each additional choice just makes things worse. House of Sand and Fog can only end up in one place, and Perelman, who adapted the novel with Shawn Lawrence Otto, moves things forward at a steady pace. Perelman makes sure to explore the characters of both Lazaro and Behrani, and explain their motivations. There isn't a 'good guy' or 'bad guy,' just two flawed people, who are both right to certain degrees. This is part of what makes the film so moving. It's hard to decide who deserves the house more, since Perelman presents such a compelling case for both of them.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
2 hours, 6 minutes, Rated R for some violence/disturbing images, language, and a scene of sexuality.

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