House of Sand and Fog

Northern California, the late '80s: Jennifer Connelly is Kathy, a recovering alcoholic who discovers one morning that her house is being repossessed by the county to be sold at auction, due to a bureaucratic mistake that she did not notice or fix in time. Ben Kingsley is Behrani, a former colonel for the Shah of Iran who escaped Khomeini with his family to seek a better life in the United States. When Kathy's house comes up for auction, the money that Behrani has saved working two humiliating jobs is finally put to use, and he snaps up the house immediately.

What follows is an indictment of both pride and prejudice on both sides, as we are made to sympathize with both Kathy and Behrani, even while they refuse to budge. You can tell from the start that bad things are bound to ensue, but fortunately House of Sand and Fog never becomes mawkish or melodramatic. It's not irritating, either: I mention this because sometimes tragedies that unfold due to the pigheaded actions of its characters are so painful to watch that you almost feel like leaving the theatre. But Connelly and especially Kingsley are so right in their roles that you understand the justification behind their actions, instead of merely shaking your head and saying "Oh no, you idiot..."

That's not to say House of Sand and Fog is a flawless film. Far from it. The supporting cast is unfortunately weak (especially Ron Eldard as a rookie cop who falls in love with Kathy and whose actions really are at the center of the story), the dialogue is somewhat stilted, and Perelman applies his visual symbolism - birds, blood, water - a little heavily. Worst of all is a completely unnecessary plot device - apparently not in Andre Dubus's original novel - where Kathy's mom is due to visit in two weeks. It's meant to add a "deadline" element to the drama, but it only distracts: there's no way that everything that happens in the story can take place within two weeks!

Anyway, Roger Deakins's cinematography is breathtaking - the fog-shrouded Northern California coast never looked so good - and even the usually overbearing James Horner composes a score that is restrained and bittersweet. Sand and Fog is a mixed bag, but I can't emphasize enough how strong Kingsley's performance is. It's far better than Sean Penn's more-lauded turn in Mystic River. And it may seem incongruous to mention this, but Connelly is sexier in this film than she's been in ages.