Powerhouse

`Sand and Fog, ' a tale of ideological and real-estate feuds, rests on a foundation of remarkable acting.

Movie Review

December 26, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

3-stars

The actors in House of Sand and Fog infuse this story of a real-estate war over an auctioned house with a seismic power that goes beyond the writing and the imagery. When your mind objects to the rigging of the plot and a climactic avalanche of melodrama, the performers' intensity and passion still cut you to the quick.

Ben Kingsley plays an immigrant Iranian who was a high-level air force officer in the Shah's regime. In order to support his family in an aptly regal manner, he's been working on a road crew during the day and at a convenience store at night, hiding his employment from the San Francisco Bay Area's upper-crust Iranian enclave.

At the movie's start, he sees the chance to replenish his coffers: He buys, at county auction, a bungalow in a fog-shrouded coastal suburb. He swiftly improves it and prepares to sell it off at more than four times his cost. The problem is, the county had seized the house by mistake. Were it not for the erroneous assessment of a home business tax, the bungalow would indisputably belong to a newly single woman (Jennifer Connelly), who inherited it from her father. But she's a recovering addict who's such an emotional wreck that she's been tossing out tax notices without reading them. Before her lawyer can prevent him, Kingsley makes the property his own.

The high intentions of the original novelist, Andre Dubus III, and the director, Vadim Perelman (who co-wrote the script with Shawn Lawrence Otto), stick out all over all the place. In the book, the anti-heroine constantly refers to Kingsley's character as an Arab; actually, he's Persian. Yet the fight over territory where two people insist on equal ownership and rights inevitably evokes the tensions of the Middle East. And with Kingsley trying to work his new country's system for everything he can get and Connelly as a marginal figure who too easily drops out of that system, House of Sand and Fog also means to uncover the nightmare fringes of the American Dream.

What makes the movie potent, though, has nothing to do with metaphor or parable. It's that the story provides Connelly, Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo as Kingsley's wife with all the tools they need to resurrect, flesh out, revamp and criticize outmoded male and female roles. Connelly turns her forlorn flake into a new-millennium damsel in distress with a bit of femme fatale mixed in. She's a woman who grew up with the idea of liberation but doesn't have the inner resources to make it on her own.

Connelly delivers the film's most daring performance. Unlike those Hollywood flavors of the month who sneak their own glamorous highlights into the most downtrodden characters, Connelly brings out all the shadows and languor of her usually glowing beauty. She creates a woman who insists on her worth even when the sole weapons she can muster against the Iranian are shame and embarrassment.

Her tragedy is that when a married deputy sheriff (Ron Eldard) woos and offers to help her, she gives in too easily to his wants and her romantic fantasies. He aims to be the man in uniform who comes to the rescue. But he's too sloppy and needy - and love makes him reckless. The outcome recalls Nelson Algren's advice, "Never, never, no matter what else you do in your whole life, never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own."

Ironically, Kingsley is the man in uniform who comes to the rescue, but only for his own family - and only for a while. I think that for this story, the real value of his Persian rituals and discipline is that they underline the romance of patriarchy. And Kingsley goes all the way with it. The unconscious shadings that sneak into this highly conscious actor's best performances are what give them a magnetic vim. In House of Sand and Fog he's at his peak.

Kingsley knows in his bones that without arms deals to secure or troops to command, his character has focused all his force into domestic machismo. His assumption of total parental and marital responsibility is off-putting - also admirable. It includes doing anything to marry off his daughter properly and to prize his teen-age boy's sensitivity and honor while trying to toughen him up.

This husband is simultaneously forbidding and erotic in his air of command. And Aghdashloo plays his wife with exquisite sensuality, compassion and pride. She engages him in alternately violent and subtle struggles over their household's direction, and when they share a moment of ecstasy, their pleasure becomes palpable without soft-core rolling around.

The colonel's tragedy is that he places too much confidence in his capacity to manage events - which, of course, can't extend over volatile people like the woman he displaces and her too-determined-to-prove-himself screw-up of a deputy. Kingsley makes you see the valor of the colonel's masculine urge to control and the pride that comes before a fall worse than anything he could have expected. Into an ending that could have been an unrelieved (and unearned) downer, he breathes the cleansing force of emotional release.

House of Sand and Fog

Starring Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly

Directed by Vadim Perelman

Released by DreamWorks

Rated R

Time 126 minutes

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