Since antiquity, tragedy has been regarded as the highest and most important form of drama for its ability to arouse the deepest sense of pathos and empathy from its audience.
Remind yourself of this if you choose to watch 'House of Sand and Fog.' I can state emphatically that 'House' is one of the most artfully directed and acted films of the last five years, but make no mistake: it is a tragedy, and only the hardest and most jaded of hearts will emerge from the experience undisturbed. It is a dissertation on sorrow, and while I'm glad I saw it, I can't say I had a whole lot of fun.
'House' was directed by newcomer Vadim Perelman, who also adapted the screenplay from the acclaimed novel by Andre Dubus III. Perelman tweaks the story in some respects but is ultimately faithful to the novel's style and sensibility. As in the novel, the story is filtered through alternating perspectives, the foremost of which are Behrani (Ben Kingsley), a Persian ex-pat and a former high-ranking officer under the Shah in Iran, and Kathy Lazaro (Jennifer Connelly), a severely depressed recovering alcoholic tenuously holding onto sobriety but nevertheless gradually self-destructing after the collapse of her marriage.
The two characters are drawn together, appropriately enough, by the house of the title, a small but elegant coastal property in fictional Pacific County, California (the novel sets the house in Malibu). The house belongs to Kathy, who inherited it (along with her older brother, who lives elsewhere) from her deceased father. Kathy has become a victim of a bureaucratic snafu--she has been erroneously charged with delinquency on taxes for a non-existent business--but due to her textbook depressive refusal to open and answer her mail, she wakes up one morning to find that the county has evicted her and put her property up for auction.
Enter Colonel Behrani, a regal man of aristocratic bearing whose ruthless determination to maintain the standard of living his family has always been accustomed to is simultaneously honorable and pathetic. Behrani is the story's tragic hero in the classical sense. Behrani has been saving and shrewdly watching the classified ads waiting for a chance to snap up a foreclosure at a cut rate price, make modest renovations, and then resell the property at peak market value in order to acquire a six-figure nest-egg to fund his son's education and improve his family's future prospects in the US. Fortuitously, the house he buys at auction--Kathy's house--is a coastal property bearing some resemblance to his former home on the Caspian Sea, back before his family fled Iran. The house is seen in an early flashback, an eerie montage wherein a younger Behrani in full-dress service uniform observes as a row of enormous trees are severed at the trunk so that the sea will be visible from the balcony where he stands.
To elaborate the plot further would be too revealing, so I'll simply say that the lead performances in this film are sublime. I didn't think at first that I'd be able to believe the stunningly beautiful Jennifer Connelly as Kathy, a woman who redefines the term 'self-destructive,' and yet Connelly manages once again as she did in 'A Beautiful Mind' to prove that her talent and skill match or even exceed the looks. It really goes without saying that Ben Kingsley's Behrani is a stunning performance--Kingsley is a mesmerizingly charismatic screen presence and a chameleonic character actor; few actors in the history of film have been able to so convincingly disappear into their characters while projecting such a distinctive, distinguished persona. Both actors master these demanding roles such that the audience feels a broad scope of contradictory and ambiguous emotions towards their characters; neither is completely sympathetic nor despicable, and though in the Aristotelian sense Behrani is the story's tragic hero, it's resolution remains ambiguous, as does the ultimate responsibility for the tragic denouement.
The direction of the film has its occasional hitches, but many of Vadim Perelman's shots are brilliantly captivating. The Northern California coastline is exploited to maximum effect, and Perelman offers numerous shots and angles of seamless appeal--they are original and engaging without feeling forced or consciously 'film-schoolish.' It's quite a beautiful movie to look at, from the meticulous arrangement of the Behrani's luxurious furniture and decorations to the patience with which Perelman lets his actors' nuanced facial expressions and physical gestures unfold the depths of their characters.
I have some slight reservation about recommending the film simply because its tragedy is so unmerciful. And there are moments where you may find yourself exasperated with the characters and unwilling to maintain your sympathy for them. Personally, I think it's worth a look for the quality of the performances alone. It's also quite original and distinctive in style. It's devastatingly sad, however, and so should be reserved for appropriate moods.