Most films, by the very nature of their stories, take sides. There is the protagonist, for which we root, the antagonist, which we love to hate, and between them, a conflict that needs to be resolved. In the real world, however, and in Vadim Perelman's remarkable House of Sand and Fog
, things are not nearly so simple. There are nuances, shades, degrees of right and wrong, and special circumstances to be taken into account. Rather than a simple line separating the various characters that populate the film, there is a complex web of mistakes, a spiral that inexorably descends into tragedy. Based on a remarkably crafted novel by Andre Dubus III, adapted and directed by first-time director Vadim Perelman, and performed by a group of actors led by Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly, House of Sand and Fog
is one of the year's must-see films.
The novel by Dubus, and Perelman's perfect adaptation, is remarkable both in its simplicity and in its complexity. Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), a recovering alcoholic with her life in shambles, sees her ocean-front house seized by the county for non-payment of a tax she was never supposed to pay. However, before the mistake can be corrected, the house is put up for action. It is promptly bought at a low price by Massoud Amir Berhani (Ben Kingsley), an exiled former Iranian Colonel who sees it as a chance to rise above his low-paying working class jobs and return to his family its former dignity. Thus begins a struggle between Kathy and Berhani over the ownership of the house: the former maintains that the house is still hers, despite the fact that she ignored the county's repeated warnings of the seizure; the latter contends that he should not be penalized for the county's incompetence, and offers to sell back the house at four times the price he paid for it. Involved tangentially are also complex supporting characters, foremost of which are Lester, a married cop who becomes romantically involved with Kathy, Nadi, Berhani's submissive but intelligent wife, and Ismail, their son.
This scenario, which begins quite simply, proceeds with an inplacable logic. The characters act emotionally, believably, their every action dictated by the circumstances of their past and their ideals for the future. The web these actions spin grows ever tighter, its effects become more and more damaging, and the conclusion, when it arrives, is as inevitable as it is tragic.
Vadim Perelman, who wrote the script with Shawn Otto, understands that for House of Sand and Fog
to work, the characters must be placed above everything. As such, his script proceeds slowly but surely, with a pace both fluid and intelligent. No minute is wasted--indeed, every scene works towards developing the characters and their dynamics.
Of course, for such a character-driven film to work, the performances must be solid, and thankfully, House of Sand and Fog
is blessed with some of the year's best acting. Ben Kingsley, an actor of immense precision, is perfectly suited to play the Colonel, and he turns in what may well be his best performance. He chisels Berhani into a man of tremendous control and dignity, but never forgets his emotional, human side. As a counterpoint, Jennifer Connelly's Kathy is a woman adrift, driven by emotions and impulses, confused and frigthened. The supporting actors are more uneven. As Nadi, Shohreh Aghdashloo gives the year's best supporting performance, creating a complex character at once dignified and fearful, submissive and resentful, and altogether sublime. She is the heart of the film. As Lester, however, Ron Eldard fares less well--he isn't as convincing as he needs to be, and some of his scenes with Jennifer Connelly seem forced.
Perelman's directorial achievement is that he brings the complex screenplay to life in an involving manner. His direction is astute, deftly highlighting the various dynamics that exist between the characters, showing how each action influences the balance between them, and generally navigating the increasingly complex story currents with elegance.
The film is also involving on a thematic level, thanks to a conflict the audience can relate to. The struggle to hold on to a home, to strive for a better life, and in more generally terms, the subjectivity of "right" and "wrong" and the difficulty of accepting moral relativity are universal themes which are familiar to everyone.
The complex script and controlled performance may make House of Sand and Fog
sound like a chamber piece, and yet it is not. Thanks to Perelman's talented collaborators, the visuals and music of the film give the film the fluidity and aesthetic beauty it needs to be palatable and involving. Behind the camera, ace cinematographer Roger Deakins stylizes the color palette, and saturates the film with fog, mist, and ominous shafts of light. He also uses landscape time-lapse shots to great effect. Composer James Horner delivered a moody, atmospheric score that, while a bit overbearing, generally works well.
House of Sand and Fog
is, in many ways, a rarity in Hollywood filmmaking. Director Vadim Perelman dares to tell a complex story with no true protagonists and to grapple with ambiguous morally dillemmas, and he does so with elegance and fluidity.