A Well-Marked Path to Hell

House of Sand and Fog

House of Sand and Fog, the debut movie from writer/director Vadim Perelman, features one shooting, one murder (distinct from the shooting), one suicide, two failed suicide attempts, one hostage situation, an aborted arson, one incident of physical domestic violence, one incident of verbal domestic abuse bordering on physical, and an affair. And the amazing thing is that the portrayals are convincing enough that all this feels only a touch silly.

As for the characters, they’re a bit more problematic. The film’s inhabitants are so one-dimensional and rigid that the movie becomes a simplistic modern-day morality tale whose lessons are obvious from the outset, and whose journey is on a well-marked path to hell.

Based on the novel by Andres Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog starts with an unfortunate situation and then lets bad decisions compound the trouble. Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is a recovering alcoholic and abandoned wife who has become so sedentary that she doesn’t even open the mail. She is therefore a bit shocked when the county knocks on her door one morning to evict her from the home that her father left her.

The house is bought at auction by a former (and apparently exiled) Iranian colonel, Behrani (Ben Kingsley), who works a construction job but hides that from his neighbors with an expensive suit. When his wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) complains that the family is living like gypsies, moving from place to place, Behrani throws a phone in her direction and tells her sternly that she is not to air another complaint.

Kathy desperately wants her house back and makes regular unwelcome visits there, begging Behrani to give it to her. She eventually befriends cop Lester (Ron Eldard), and in his infinite wisdom he tries to threaten Behrani. And by this point, only a moron would have any hope that things could still turn out well. The only fun in the movie is trying to figure out exactly how the situation is going to get even more fucked up.

House of Sand and Fog starts with great promise, as the three main characters — Kathy, Behrani, and Lester — are sharply, efficiently, and elegantly drawn; you learn a great deal about them in the opening scenes, with a minimum of exposition. But there has to be some opportunity for character growth and audience investment, and the people in this movie just don’t go anywhere. They all have defining flaws, and they’re so deeply ingrained that they can’t break out of them. Behrani is Proud and Stubborn. Kathy is Self-Destructive and Desperate. And Lester ... well, Lester is Stupid and Rash. These character traits propel the plot at almost every turn, and it’s maddening; I simply couldn’t connect with people whom the writers never gave the chance to change.

The point, I’m certain, is that people should step back from their lives to get some perspective. But the characters and situations in House of Sand and Fog are too extreme and contrived to be believed, and the people are too hardened for quiet reflection. At the movie’s climax — in a scene that should be heartbreaking — you’re more likely to be angry at the writers for what happens than the characters, and that’s a serious disconnect.

The actors are wonderfully precise, their performances finely calibrated. Connelly and Kingsley are given top billing, but I was more impressed with Eldard and Aghdashloo (who was nominated for an Oscar); in roles that don’t have to carry the weight of the movie, their acting is a little less mannered, and they leave some mystery in their characters.

The movie also features effective small touches. After Behrani throws the phone at his wife, everything she says for the rest of the movie strikes a note of doubt in the viewer. Lester has that wonderfully unique language of cops, a flat, direct way that simultaneously embraces the bureaucratic idiom and rejects its circumlocution. And the cinematography in the throw-away transitions is moody and foreboding, the only reminder of the wonderfully evocative title.

Those are small consolations, though. The movie is fundamentally bankrupt — its characters simple and static, the presentation oppressive and overly sober.

But I didn’t see how empty the movie was until I searched for some comparisons. I realized that House of Sand and Fog is Fargo done badly and without levity. The Coen brothers’ movie had similarly pathetic characters doing similarly terrible things, but those folks were rich, human, and unpredictable. Fargo also had crucial perspective and distance in the form of the lovely Marge, who represented humanity when she said: “And for what? For a little bit of money.”

Too bad about the movie: it’s one of the saddest novels in the English language--dead on-target about small, hidden tragedies of modern American life. Happily, the book itself is very far from contrived.

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