A parable of American self-absorption, of people never seeing outside their own little bubble until it's too late, "House of Sand and Fog" is a psychological drama in which fear and tension are made tangible from multiple points of view.
It's a film with two strong lead performances from the stirring Jennifer Connelly, as a demoralized recovering addict who loses her family home in foreclosure, and the potent Ben Kinsley as the proud Iranian immigrant who becomes the target of this woman's distain when he buys the house at auction with plans to sell it for a profit so he can support his wife and college-bound son.
It's a film about choices and consequences, and a film absent of easy black-or-white ethics, which makes for some powerful emotions. But it's also a film with many nagging problems that add up to a distracting crescendo.
Connelly lends her character a sleepless, spiritually weathered edge that makes her weary calmness seem markedly unpredictable. She holes up in a cheap motel, at first trying to get her house back through legal means (Frances Fisher has a small, solid role as her altruistic lawyer) but growing more frustrated and unbalanced every time she ill-advisedly drives by the place -- or even sleeps outside it in her car on a foggy night.
But this beautiful actress also looks healthier than she has in a while, which is all wrong for her role as a vulnerable 12-stepper on shaky ground who takes sink baths at gas stations when she can no longer afford the motel with only her part-time house-cleaning job (something to which the movie pays only lip service).
Co-writer and director Vadim Perelman (who adapted the Andre Dubas III best-seller with collaborator Shawn Lawrence Otto) fails to address why Connelly, who says she has lived her whole life in that house, has no friends to crash with or console her. Yet this fact is a pivotal point in the script because it leads to her relationship with a sympathetic but dodgy cop (Ron Eldard) who helps her move her things into storage after helping serve her eviction notice.
Kingsley peels back many interesting layers of gray as the former Iranian air force colonel who fled to America when the Ayatollahs took over his country -- although it is implied through a fight with his normally passive and apprehensive wife (the compelling Shohreh Aghdashloo) that his own actions forced them to run for their lives.
He's a man with both an excess of pride (he hides his financial woes and his part-time convenience clerk and highway crew jobs from friends and family alike) and residual arrogance from his once-lofty post. When it's discovered that the county made a mistake selling him the house before Connelly's legal challenges could be heard, he reacts indignantly at the suggestion that he sell it back for what he'd paid. It was too modest a sum to count on having the same luck again, and he'd saved up for years in order to buy a home to live in, fix up and resell to provide stability for his family.
Empathetic to both characters, the film presents an ethical conundrum, but also exposes how blind these people are to anything but their own self-interests. As Connelly becomes aggressive in her frustration, the tension escalates in small increments until the overly attentive cop -- whose dangerous moral ambiguity escapes Connelly's unsound attention even when he leaves his wife and kids for her and encourages her to break her sobriety -- steps in. His knee-jerked actions cause events to snowball toward a surprising tragedy that, unfortunately, has already been telegraphed in the flash-forward opening scene that is nothing but a lazy shortcut for creating trepidation.
Imagined as a psychological thriller more intellectual than most, "House of Sand and Fog" has a many things going for it -- a spellbinding atmosphere, Connelly and Kingsley, its refusal to paint its characters in broad strokes of good or bad. So it's especially disappointing that the film is hampered by Perelman's stale narrative techniques, like that opening scene and a climax in which the drama is beaten to death by the excessive orchestration of composer James Horner ("Titanic," "A Beautiful Mind").
Box Office Worldwide: $16.9M
Production compaines: DreamWorks SKG
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Director: Vadim Perelman
Starring: Jennifer Connelly as Kathy, Ben Kingsley as Behrani, Ron Eldard as Lester, Frances Fisher as Connie Walsh, Kim Dickens as Carol Burdon, Shohreh Aghdashloo as Nadi, Jonathan Ahdout as Esmail, Navi Rawat as Soraya, Kia Jam as Ali
Also starring: Ashley Edner