Publicised as an ’exploration of the American Dream gone awry‘, House of Sand and Fog looks promising. A thriller revolving around disputed ownership of a house, the film attempts to deal with issues of immigration, racism, and the crushing of individual hopes by bureaucratic state machinery and alienation. As such, and as a thriller that draws its tension from the relationship between its characters rather than special effects and shootouts, it is certainly streets ahead of most Hollywood movies.
Massoud Amir Berani is a former colonel in the Iranian airforce under the Shah, forced to leave during the 1979 revolution. In the US he is reduced to doing two jobs, as part of a road repair crew and in a petrol station, to keep his family in the style they are used to and to put his son through college. When recently divorced ex-addict Kathy Nicolo is evicted from her house in California as a result of a bureaucratic mistake Berani sees a way out of his bind, buying the house for a fraction of its worth at auction with plans to sell it on and make a huge profit. The resulting clash over the ownership of the house gets increasingly out of control as a racist deputy sheriff, Lester Burdon, intervenes on Kathy‘s behalf.
Initially, though not quite believable, House of Sand and Fog is gripping, and is helped no end by a superb performance by Ben Kingsley as Berani, a vicious and arrogant man trying to regain some control in a life turned upside down. The unsympathetic nature of his character makes his (and the viewer‘s) realisation of racism all the more arresting. Kathy is also compellingly played by Jennifer Connelly as a woman whose mental health is eroding under a series of emotional blows and who desperately clings to the obsessive and dangerous Burdon.
Sadly, however, the film doesn‘t live up to its potential. As the tragic consequences of this ’clash of cultures‘ (as it is described in the blurb) are revealed, the story and the script become more and more unlikely.
It is based on a book by Andre Dubus III which was made an instant bestseller after being chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection, and its message is ultimately Oprah Winfrey-esque: People should understand each other and get on, no matter what their differences, and it is ’our hopes, not our hatreds, that divide us‘. The film‘s symbolism is clunky and obvious – endless shots of fog rolling in to obscure the house were especially irritating. But the biggest problem with the film is its lack of credibility. It is hard to believe in Berani‘s predicament, and harder to sympathise. Kathy‘s fight for her house gets more desperate as a visit from her mother draws closer, giving the impression that retaining the illusion of normality is more important than having somewhere to live. Maybe this is a problem the middle classes can relate to, but it seems bizarre. The sheriff‘s character and responses, pivotal to the film, are utterly unbelievable, and Ron Eldard is badly miscast.
House of Sand and Fog left me feeling depressed – not at the tragic turn of events in the film, but that the chance to make an intelligent film about the immigrant experience and the alienation of human beings from each other had been given the Dreamworks/Oprah treatment, and reduced to sentimentalism about the importance of family and the destructive potential of greed.
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