House of Sand and Fog (2003) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for violence, language, drug use, and sexuality
Running Time: 126 min.

Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jonathan Ahdout, Frances Fisher, Kim Dickens
Director: Vadim Perelman
Screenplay: Vadim Perelman, Shawn Otto
Review published October 28, 2004

Not really my cup of tea, as the saying goes.  House of Sand and Fog is a depressing family drama where there are no easy solutions, no heroes, no villains, and no absolute right or wrong.  It's based on the popular novel of the same name by Andres Dubus III, the son of Andre Dubus (who wrote "Killings", which would later be turned into the movie, In the Bedroom, a similarly depressing family drama with no easy solutions.)  Like many big-screen dramas about serious issues, the strengths of the film come primarily from the quality of the acting and the believability of the resolutions.  While the acting is quite good, with Oscar nominations going to Kingsley (Sneakers, Suspect Zero) and Aghdashloo, it is in the story itself where the film frequently can't quite seem to support the weight of its heavy-handed developments.

The movie starts out with Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind, Hulk) as Kathy Nicolo, who is evicted coldly from her deceased father's house for failing to pay for something that ended up being a bureaucratic mistake.  One of the policemen overseeing the eviction, Lester Burdon (Eldard, Just a Kiss), feels compassion for Kathy and offers to help see her through.  Lester is stuck in an unhappy marriage, and becomes quite fond of Kathy, and vows to do whatever he can to see her house is returned.  Unfortunately, the house has already sold to an ex-Iranian colonel, Massoud Amir Berhani (Kingsley), who sees a way to make four times the amount he paid on the house, and restore dignity and honor to his family by not having o struggle to make ends meet in menial jobs.  When an immovable force and irresistible object threaten to collide, there is no victor...unless one of them is removed from the equation.

While I admire the performances from a good ensemble of actors, and did respect the complexity of characters and interactions among them, House of Sand and Fog is a rather large, bitter pill to have to try to swallow down.  It doesn't go down easily, so first-time writer-director Vadim Perelman is stuck in the unfortunate position of having to force it down.  The darkness of the drama becomes not just depressing, but overwhelmingly so in its approach, at which time the bleakness becomes all-consuming, and quite out of place in this drama about securing the rights to a beachside home. 

Possibly the most interesting aspect of the story involves the conflict between morality vs. legality.  Kathy has a moral right to her family home, needlessly taken away through governmental negligence, while the Berhani family has the legal right, and caught in the tug-of-war is the would-be boyfriend, Lester, who sides with the moral rights as a man, but neglects his authority and responsibility to uphold the legal rights. That would be all well and good within the confines of a made-for-TV drama, but Perelman sees this story more as a somber thriller, ditching the humanistic elements for some hyperbolic confrontations that escalate feverishly until only tragedy can result.

How much you come away with from House of Sand and Fog largely depends on how serious you're willing to go in this struggle over ocean view property, and personally speaking, I wasn't willing to go as far as Perelman with it.  Sullen, but thankfully not maudlin, House of Sand and Fog, is still worthwhile for the performances and resonant themes, but could have been better if the creators would have been content with trying to craft a good film, before having the pretense to think this could be a great one.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo