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House of Sand and Fog’ is darkly compelling

Mary Squillace | Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Rarely is tragedy manifested as beautifully as it appears in first-time director Vadim Perelman’s “House of Sand and Fog.”Based on Andre Dubus III’s best-selling novel comes a poignant tale of hope gone awry. After the county wrongly evicts Kathy Lazaro (Jennifer Connelly), a former alcoholic, from her beachfront bungalow, she vows to reclaim it by any means necessary. However, her task becomes exceedingly difficult as Massaoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), a former Iranian colonel, and his family begin to make themselves at home. Deepening the story’s complexities, Kathy embarks on an affair with a volatile and married deputy (Ron Eldard). As the drama escalates, the characters’ lives become dangerously and irreversibly entangled.Overall, Perelman makes a commendable first impression as a director. While the viewer will undoubtedly detect disaster in the first minutes of the film, Perelman gracefully presents the unfortunate sequence of events in a manner that neither polarizes the audience’s empathy nor sensationalizes the characters’ plights. In this way, he remains true to Dubus’ novel.This portrayal makes it impossible to discern between good and evil, a quality that makes the film truly agonizing and the characters fully human. Each character is flawed but Perelman has designed each shot in a way that allows an array of three-dimensional personalities to emerge.In spite of Perelman’s successful first hack at directing, the film’s cast steals the show, so to speak. As expected, Connelly turns out another compelling performance. She convincingly portrays a woman who has reached the innermost depths of despair, not unlike her role in “Requiem for a Dream.”Although, even Connelly’s signature flair for drama pales in comparison to the efforts of Ben Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Nadi, Behrani’s wife. Both actors slide into their respective roles seamlessly, conveying a range of emotions with skill and subtlety. Appropriately, Kingsley and Aghdashloo each garnered an Oscar nomination this winter.The only actor that really falls short is Ron Eldard, who plays Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon. At times his portrayal lacks depth and is not fully believable. Roger Deakins (“A Beautiful Mind”) plays an equally indispensable, but far more understated role as the Director of Photography. In addition to capturing the full aesthetics of the northern California coast and forests, he sets the entire tone of the film with the lighting.Many shots feature mere silhouettes of the characters, appropriately representing the tragedy that continuously overshadows all of them. In this way, Deakins turns the most mundane shots into moving representations of the protagonists. A single shot of Kathy sitting alone at a table becomes heart-wrenching; a scene between Behrani and his son, a telling tableau. The DVD includes a number of special features that are entirely worth watching. A “behind-the-scenes look” as well as the filmmakers’ commentary offer plenty of “fun facts” and insights that draw attention to the remarkable effort and talent that exist behind the camera. Other extras include a particularly striking photo gallery with narration, and Shohreh Aghdashloo’s moving audition. Although “House of Sand and Fog” is a profoundly sobering experience, it is a valuable one. The high cinematic quality resulting from this orchestration of talents merits this film’s placement into any cinephile’s personal collection. At the very least it’s worth the $4.79 rental fee at Blockbuster.