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House of Sand and Fog (2003)
Rated R

Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, and Ron Eldard

Rating:
***1/2
out of
*****

Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) is a recovering alcoholic who has recently been separated from her husband. In a state of depression, she's managed to hang on to her housecleaning job but hasn't managed much else. She doesn't even open her mail. As a result, she's missed the notification from the county that she supposedly owes $500 in business taxes. Since she's made no attempt to pay, the county shows up to evict her from her house.

Colonel Behrani (Ben Kingsley) has been in exile in the United States following the Islamic revolution in Iran. He's been working as a road construction laborer and a convenience store clerk as he tries to maintain an illusion of wealth for his wife and son, who think he's a white collar worker. After seeing an ad for a repossessed house selling for a quarter of what it's worth, he spends what little savings he has left to purchase it; planning to resell it for full market value -- making a tidy profit as a result. With the purchase of the house finalized, he will be free from his menial jobs and on his way to reclaiming the pride he once held in his home country.

The problem is that the house he's purchased is the one owned by Kathy. The county's claims against the house are in error, as Kathy's lawyer discovers, and Kathy should have never been evicted. However, since Colonel Behrani bought the house legally and currently owns the deed, the only quick way to get the house back is to have him agree to sell it back to the county for what he paid for it. This, of course, would destroy his plans to make a life for himself. His refusal to do so will destroy Kathy's fragile link to sobriety and sanity, since the house is the only stable thing in her life.

Kathy has no local family or friends to turn to but Lester (Ron Eldard), a deputy assigned to evict her, feels sorry for her and eventually becomes her lover. Eager to help Kathy reclaim her house, he tries to intimidate Colonel Behrani. Being a military man, he's not easily dissuaded from his plans. A confrontation is seemingly inevitable but the results are certainly not predictable.

First-time director Vadim Perelman, who also adapted the screenplay from the novel by Andre Dubus III, makes multiple visual comparisons between Kathy and Behrani that border on hitting the viewer over the head. Before it gets too irritating, the film makes an admirable attempt at humanizing both of them and making it hard to pin down one as the hero and the other as the villain. Both do things they shouldn't in the name of doing what they feel is right. This shifting of the blame, such as it is, keeps the film interesting up until the climax. Without giving anything away, this has to be the single most depressing film I've seen all year.

Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley each give wonderful and equally heartbreaking performances and, for these performances alone, the film is worth seeing. An Academy Award nomination for Kingsley is a definite possibility. Also notable is Shohreh Aghdashloo, as Behrani's wife. Her humanity and vulnerability provide the fulcrum for the viewer's sympathies.

House of Sand and Fog may not be an entirely great film but it's certainly one that's not easily forgotten.

Trivia: Ben Kingsley will play The Hood in 2004's live-action version of Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds. (Source: The Internet Movie Database)

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