How far would you go to secure your piece of the American Dream? How far would you go to get it back? What happens when the American Dream turns into a nightmare? The House of Sand and Fog is a tragic story of one house and two owners; both have a legal claim to the house, and neither can afford, financially or emotionally, to let it go. The movie is based on the novel by Andre Dubus III, and takes a deep, disturbing look into the human condition.
The story centers on a modest beach house on the California Coast put up for auction because its owner, Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connolly), defaulted on a tax debt (erroneously) owed to the city. Recovering from alcohol addiction and the abandonment of her husband, she is so terribly depressed that she can barely raise herself from bed to work her job as a house cleaner. Kathy's loss is the gain of Iranian exile Messaoud Behrani (Ben Kingsley), a former privileged member of the Shah's elite inner circle, now a roadside laborer by day and convenience store clerk by night. Once rich and influential, he now earns barely enough to keep up the façade of affluence to his family and community of fellow ex-pats. Image is so important to him that he spends half of what remains of his former prosperity on a lavish wedding to marry his daughter into a respectable (and wealthy) family.
Behrani purchases the distressed property for a fraction of what it is worth, and intends to flip it so that he can regain some of the security and comfort that he had in his Persian paradise. His wife Nadi (Shoreh Aghdashloo) is not happy about the move, but submits to the will of her husband and prepares them to relocate to the small bungalow. Despite her initial misgivings about the house, she quickly warms up to it and realizes the small cottage will bring the well being her family needs.
Now homeless with no money or emotional support, Kathy tries to get her house back by both legal and less than legal means. Her lawyer (Frances Fisher: Titanic) attempts to intervene, but because of Kathy's inactions, finds there is little she can do. Then there is Lester Burton (Ron Eldard: Black Hawk Down), the police office who evicted Kathy, who follows his misguided sympathies and attraction for Kathy to cause trouble for the Behrani's.
What makes House of Sand and Fog so heartrending is that you know that the movie is going to end badly, but you just don't know how badly and for whom the worse will come. What will happen to this tiny little house on a hill with a partial ocean view? The house in this movie is not just the setting, not just the centerpiece or bone of contention between the lead actors, but a character unto itself. Both people at the center of the story are both good and flawed people, and both have a valid stake in the property. The movie is impartial in its representation and doesn't declare who is wrong or right, or who should ultimately get the house.
Besides the unusual and saturnine story at the core of this movie is the remarkable and outstanding cast. Ben Kingsley, who needs no introduction, does remarkably as the proud Iranian immigrant who is desperately trying to attain a part of a country whose culture he so despises. He tells his son who expresses compassion for Kathy's plight: "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. We are not like them. We know rich opportunities when we see them. Do not throw away God's blessing." -- Jennifer Connolly who I first saw in John Singleton's Higher Learning was resounding as the anguished and desperate Kathy, and you saw into Kathy's fraught persona through her sparkling blue eyes. Connelly exquisitely accomplished her role as the complex woman who grasps for the last vestige of her comfort, happiness, and dignity . I was very disappointed that she did not receive an Oscar nomination for her performance. However, an Oscar nod did go to Shoreh Aghdashloo as Behrani's subservient wife, and deservedly so. Largely unknown to American film audiences, Aghdashloo is well known in the Iranian circles. She embodies classic Persian beauty as well as the inner strength, patience, and grace of women of her ilk. She is the most sympathetic and most suffering character in the film, caught in the crossfire of a war she did not declare. She is torn between sympathy for Kathy and her devotion to her husband. Newcomer Johnathan Ahdout, makes a strong debut as the loyal but confused son whose respect for his father is questioned.
House of Sand and Fog will not end happily ever after and you know that early on, but the last effects of the culmination of events will impact you. The strength and unrelenting tenacity to the home of both Kathy and Behrani steer the story to an inevitably disastrous outcome and lead to the heartbreaking conclusion. The final scenes of the movie are very disturbing and highly emotional. House of Sand and Fog will haunt you for days after watching it and you'll find yourself questioning the actions of the characters, and replaying the events over in your head. "Why didn't he….", "What if they had only….", "Why didn't she just…..".
This movie will seize your emotions and requires that you prepare yourself for the complex individuals entangled in this battle for the humble ocean side cottage. You will hurt for both characters and feel for their struggle wanting both to have the house, knowing that it is an impossible option. There is intense amount of pain in this film and director Vadim Perlman ensures that we will feel it. I don't know if you will leave the theater in tears, but you will leave deeply affected, realizing that the American Dream in this case became a cruel illusion.
Notes: Astoundingly superb casting, writing, and acting. Connelly and Kingsley show why they are Oscar Winners.
Czarina's Caustic Comment or Captious Compliment: Powerful, sorrowful, deep, and depressing. This House casts a sandy fog over the concept of the American Dream.
House of Czarina
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