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DreamWorks SKG

Official Site

Director: Vadim Perelman

Producers: Michael London, Vadim Perelman

Written by: Vadim Perelman, Shawn Otto; from book by Andre Dubus III

Cast: Sir Ben Kingsley (Behrani), Jennifer Connelly (Kathy), Ron Eldard (Lester), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Nadi), Kim Dickens

Rating: out of 5

An unprepossessing ’50s house in San Francisco becomes the focus of a dispute that escalates beyond control in House Of Sand And Fog, a beautifully rendered downer by Andre Dubus III, whose father was the author of the source material for 2001’s brutally depressing In The Bedroom. Coincidentally, In The Bedroom also was released at Christmas. Tis the season, I guess.

A beautiful young house cleaner who’s recovering from addiction, Kathy (Connelly) has lost everything but her work and the house her dad worked 30 years to pay for. Col. Massoud Behrani (Kingsley) rubbed shoulders with the powerful back home in Iran before the fall of the shah. Now he works on road crews and at QuickieMarts, changing back into toney business suits at the end of his shift to maintain the appearance of upper class prosperity. When the sheriff’s office evicts Kathy for non-payment of her property taxes, the home her father sweated for goes up for auction on the courthouse steps and Behrani buys it. The house can be quickly resold for a huge profit, he reasons, plus, his wife (Aghdashloo) has missed the seaside home they once owned in Iran.

First-timer Vadim Perelman has written and directed a disturbing Greek tragedy (apparently the only sort of story the Dubuses know how to write) out of a real estate dispute. Needless to say, it culminates in “a shocking act of violence” that, as in In The Bedroom, just pops out, suddenly; one minute things are fairly mundane, the next minute, there’s guns. The movies made from the Dubuses’ works give a face to the people in those stupid crimes one reads about in the paper, those crimes that make one wonder, “How could it possibly have come to this?”

It comes to this through a series of bad choices. What’s so fine about House Of Sand And Fog is its balanced view of the main characters and the striking parallels between Kathy’s and Massoud’s lives. Neither character emerges as the clear object for our sympathies, with the wonderful result that we wind up feeling for both of them, and feeling a bit leery of our own ability to sit in judgment of others. Turns out, stuff’s complicated when you see it up close. Go figure. It’s doubtful whether either Perelman or Dubus III intended their work to deliver a statement on the evils of unenlightened self-interest, but the message comes through loud and clear. Still, it’s likely that the conflict over the house wouldn’t have taken its death spiral without Lester (Eldard), a deputy in the sheriff’s department who takes an interest in Kathy’s plight.

Basically, Lester is the devil. He shows up at the eviction and is solicitous and polite to Kathy, evidently a model of a caring public servant. But as his relationship with her deepens, he diverts the efforts to reclaim Kathy’s house from unsettling behavior to expedient thuggery. Just like Lucifer, he shows up to take care of you and help solve your problems, and the solutions lead you where you’d never want to go. Eldard, who spent a season or two on “E.R.”, is good at being simultaneously sweet and creepily obsessive—he’s both protective of Kathy and wicked scary.

The movie seems to fall down a little bit in its attempt to make the house a character. Despite the sad, piano-tone music underscoring shots of sunsets, clouds, mightily symbolic birds, and, yes, fog, lots of fog, the house fails to engage. And though the anti-message Perelman would hate hearing this, that too is a message, about the way human conflicts, large or small, wind up becoming all about the battle and not about the territory.

This is a well-presented and disturbing story, a movie to think about long after you leave the theater and one that makes you want to hunt up the source material. Can’t do much better than that. Highly recommended.

—Roxanne Bogucka


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