House of Sand and Fog (2003)
Ebert: Rolling Stone: TV Guide:
Warning, minor plot points revealed!
The House of Sand and Fog is a perfect dramatic masterpiece and an absolutely devastating emotional experience. If your heart is not broken and face streaked with tears by the end of this film then you are truly dead inside (Like Ken Fox from TV Guide apparently is.) It is not a forced fake Hollywood tragedy, it is a very organic yet unanticipated succession of catastrophe.
I knew this film had favorable reviews so I was expecting it to be good. I know Ben Kingsley is a great actor so I expected him to effortlessly coast through this role, as he's done in the past. I love Jennifer Connelly and this part seemed to be written for her minimalist and unique acting style. The combination of story and casting has culminated in a perfect balance that is very similar to that of also outstanding Mystic River earlier in the year. I loved this movie and if not for The Return of the King, I would have a very hard time deciding which film, Mystic River or House of Sand and Fog, is more deserving of the award for best picture of the year.
Connelly's character, Kathy Nicolo, is a recovering alcoholic who has yet to tell her family that her husband has left and that she spends most days sleeping to stave off depression. In error, the city has taxed her house and property but she has not followed up on the mail that has been sent to inform her of the impending eviction. The house is put up for auction and quickly purchased by a struggling Iranian immigrant family (Kingsley) who hopes to remodel and re-sell the house for a profit.
The single flaw in the movie, and it is more of a personal issue for me, is that Jennifer Connelly is way too beautiful and physically fit to be a depressed, poverty stricken, struggling former alcoholic cleaning lady. The film makers should have added some of the weight that a person would no doubt gain from quitting smoking and drinking while laying around all day and night eating junk food. Her hair, teeth, complexion, and figure are too perfect. It took about an hour for me to accept her as downtrodden and broken. (See the upcoming Charlize Theron film Monster to witness the kind of transformation that probably would have added to this performance)
Setting aside my personal attraction for the actress, Jennifer Connelly does a great job with the role that, as I said before, seems to have been written with her in mind. Her despair which is already deep as the film begins falls to inconceivable and unimaginable new lows as the story progresses and Connelly is able to expertly portray this collapse. Ben Kingsley surprised me. I know he's a great actor but it seems like he's been phoning-in his performances for the last couple decades. Riding the coat tails of his own early success. As Former Iranian Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani, Kingsley gives one of the finest performances of the year and the first real competition for Sean Penn's Oscar caliber work in Mystic River. With just a stare of defiance or a face contorted in grief, Kingsley admirably restores his title of master thespian.
Ron Eldard does a fine job as the dirty cop who, selfishly trying to help Kathy, ends up destroying himself along with everyone else involved. Jonathan Ahdout does a decent job as Esmail the son of Behrani. Shohreh Aghdashloo, however, as Nadi Behrani, wife of Kingsley's Massoud, gives what will undeniably be the best yet most overlooked and un-rewarded female performance of the year. Nadi, is the perfect Iranian wife, barely able to understand English, and lost in what she can probably see only as an American nightmare.
After seeing this film I immediately amended my Top 10 Films of the Year list to include it. If you only see a few movies at the theatre each year I will not insist that this be one of them. I believe it will be just as good on the small screen so make a point of renting it sometime over the next year. I highly recommend House of Sand and Fog.