By Brian Rentschler
Short version: Mostly overlooked by audiences, this movie is very well done, and worth seeing.
As I'm sure most of you have already figured out, House of Sand and Fog is not for everyone. This is not a happy movie that the whole family will enjoy watching. It has some points to make, and it makes them in a gritty, unapologetic way. However, if you prefer well-made, intelligent movies, this one is worth checking out.
What frustrated me the most about this movie was how badly marketed it was. I don't know if that was deliberate, but somehow this movie didn't seem marketed for the masses. It almost seemed like it was being aimed directly at the Oscars. (It was nominated for three Oscars, but it didn't win any of them.) For starters, the movie is based on the book of the same name by André Dubus III. I know it's traditional to keep the name, but in this case, couldn't an exception have been made? The title is booooring. And all the trailers and previews I saw conveyed only one thing -- people arguing over a house. Well, stop the presses! I know I can't resist a good story about people arguing over a house. Obviously, the movie is far more complicated than that, but Dreamworks sure didn't seem to do a very good job of making that clear to the general masses. Another frustrating thing was the fact that the movie never makes it clear when this story takes place. It turns out that the story takes place a few years after the Iranian Revolution (which started in 1979), so it's probably set in the early or mid 1980's. It would have been helpful to reinforce that fact, especially considering the nature of some of the plot points.
House of Sand and Fog has a top-notch cast, especially Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley. Connelly plays Kathy Nicolo, a recovering alcoholic who lives in a beachside house in the Bay Area that she inherited from her father. Kingsley plays Massoud Amir Behrani, a former colonel in the Iranian Army who fled to America during the Iranian Revolution. In Iran, Behrani was a wealthy man, with a luxurious beachside house, but in America, he's just an average joe. He desperately misses the luxurious lifestyle he had in Iran, so in true American fashion, he chooses to live far beyond his financial means. After a few years of this, his family is teetering on the brink of financial disaster, and he knows it, so he starts looking for some good real estate deals.
This is where Kathy Nicolo comes in. Her life is not going so well. Her husband has left her, she's trying to recover from alcoholism and she has a hard time getting out of bed in general. After receiving an erroneous business tax assessment on her property, she ignores all the follow-up mail and ends up being evicted from her home. Her house ends up being sold at an auction. Guess who buys the property? At this point, Kathy and Massoud have officially crossed paths with each other. Understandably, Kathy is very upset about all this. She gets a lawyer from legal aid to help get her house back, but the process may take months, and Kathy doesn't want to wait that long. Also, since she didn't read or respond to the mail from the tax assessor, she's partly in the wrong for the loss of her house, making things far more complicated than they should have been.
Things are going very well for Massoud Behrani and his family. They purchase Kathy's house for $45,000 and do some quick fix-ups on the property. After a few months, they put it on the market for $174,000 — nearly four times the purchase price. He is ecstatic. Finally, he and his family can crawl out from the financial burden that has plagued them for the past few years. There's just one problem — Kathy is determined not to let all this happen. She continually visits the property and harasses the Behrani family. To make matters worse, one of the cops who evicted her from her home and later took pity on her, Lester Burdon (played by Ron Eldard), becomes involved in the situation as well, and not in a good way. It becomes a bitter tug-of-war. Kathy refuses to just sit there and let her house be taken away from her. (At this point in the movie, she's homeless and broke, so her motivation to get back into the house is quite strong.) Colonel Behrani has financial prosperity within his grasp, and he's not about to give that up without a fight. Without giving away any crucial details, let's just say that desperation and stubbornness can be a really bad combination.
Overall, I thought the movie was very well done. The Oscar nominations were well deserved, but the movie was dark and depressing. What is it about Jennifer Connelly that compels her to keep starring in movies that have extremely rough and/or depressing storylines? She's a very capable actress (she won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind), but at the rate she's going, she'll end up leaving behind a legacy of very messed up characters. Having said all that, House of Sand and Fog is an intelligent movie, with excellent character development. Some scenes may seem hokey or overblown, but I never felt like the movie stooped so low as to insult my intelligence. It's just a pity that it wasn't marketed better. In fact, the only reason I saw it was because I recently purchased the DVD of American Beauty. It was bundled in a two-pack with House of Sand and Fog for two dollars more than American Beauty would have cost by itself. Some movies don't get much of a chance, I guess.