House of Sand and Fog (2003)Rated R for some violence/disturbing images, language and a scene of sexuality.
Starring Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Frances Fisher, Kim Dickens.
LVJeff's Rating: 8/10
Photo ©DreamWorks Pictures. All rights reserved.
House of Pride and Falls
In House of Sand and Fog, Ben Kingsley's character, expatriate Iranian Colonel Behrani, says something about how Americans look for immediate gratification, can only see what's right in front of them, and don't really appreciate the rewards of hard work and planning. In other words, Americans are shortsighted, and the movie goes about showing how this can contribute to social, cultural, and occupational downfalls.
But House of Sand and Fog plays a fair game and doesn't let the good colonel off the hook either. Within him and his family are much pride, righteousness, and an attitude that equates material wealth to status. These, too, lead to a downfall, and while it's possible to attribute these traits to Col. Behrani's own culture, the movie offers a larger perspective. It shows both ugly sides of the coin of human self-preservation, and how this, when combined with cultural self-centeredness, can lead people to destruction.
The movie is advertised as a demonstration of what happens when people's dreams of a good life clash with one another -- supposedly, how "hope can lead to ruin." This take is a bit simplistic -- hopes and dreams aren't what cause the ruin, but selfishness and close-mindedness employed in the pursuit of hopes and dreams are. The two adversarial parties -- Col. Behrani and his family vs. forlorn American Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) -- are fighting over ownership of a house and are both spurred on by an inflated sense of urgency. Kathy, the original owner, took the value of the house for granted until she suddenly lost it, while Col. Behrani sees the house as one step of a rigid plan to rise up from his family's current shameful level of wealth. Their clash is one of methods, values, and upbringing. One side is proud, the other is shortsighted, and, as a result, each are blinded to the concerns of the other. The ending is not happy.
House of Sand and Fog delivers its morals successfully, but along the way it challenges the viewer to latch on to something -- it's one of those movies that's proud to be ponderous, and that's not necessarily inviting; nor does its bleakness help in that matter. On the plus side, its cinematography is dusky and beautiful, and its depiction of the suburban American landscape feels appropriately weathered and commercially worn. On the minus side, the plot it uses to illustrate its themes starts out feeling convoluted before allowing itself to settle down enough for the drama to fully take over. Then there is the ending, which can easily be accused of being overwrought.
However, the film's biggest strength is found in the acting. A part of my mind seesawed between accepting what the movie was selling me and allowing my mind to wander in the face of so much silver-plattered desperation, and it was Kingsley's performance that tipped the scales. Yes, it is one of those roles that gets to have an infamous "big" scene, but Kingsley conveys genuineness like so few others that it's always a joy to watch. He's helped along the way by a committed Connelly, who seems to be reliving her part from Requiem for a Dream, and Shohreh Aghdashloo as Mrs. Behrani, turning in a very worthy performance of her own.
I like what House of Sand and Fog has to say, and the actors make the movie's message stronger. As they play out their situation in the movie's first half, the audience isn't given a clear person to root for; in fact, the characters are mostly pretty pathetic, and I came close to becoming frustrated with their actions. But as the film heads into the home stretch, I begin to identify with them more as the flawed people they are. They do some stupid things, and it's to the actors' credits that I actually wanted to forgive them. Yet, at the same time, I know the dark conclusion the film comes to is the most appropriate one. The movie's not easy to sit through, but it has something worthwhile to communicate and strong actors who go all out to communicate it.
©Jeffrey Chen, Nov. 20, 2003