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Friday, December 26, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

No room for conflicting hopes and dreams in coveted 'House'

Seattle Times movie critic

Listen carefully to James Horner's background music in "House of Sand and Fog," and it'll tell you a lot about the film: It's ominous and ever-building, like the creeping of a tide, never receding. In Vadim Perelman's film, based on Andre Dubus III's novel, two people face off over something they both want. The battle grows ever more intense, and each person is dragged down by it but can't back away — they're trapped by their own determination, in danger of drowning in the ever-rising tide.

What they want is a house, and an unremarkable one at that — as shown here, it's a very ordinary bungalow in the San Francisco Bay Area, shrouded in fog that occasionally hides its peeling paint. For Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), the house means stability and family. Her father worked hard to buy the house many years ago, and left it to her; now, working as a housecleaner after years of struggling with addiction, she has only the house to remind her of better days.

And for Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an immigrant who fled Iran with his family some years earlier, the house symbolizes a rung on the ladder to affluence, a return to the more comfortable life he led in his native country. Since arriving in the U.S., this straight-backed former colonel has found only menial jobs — road crews, convenience stores — which he works around the clock to maintain his wife and son in something resembling the prosperity they once had.

Behrani lives a double life, eloquently sketched here. After finishing a sweaty day's work on the road crew, he walks through the lobby of the hotel in whose garage his car is parked. He washes and changes into an elegant suit in a hotel bathroom and walks back through the lobby, his head high. All this is done so that he can make a dignified entrance into the apartment building where he lives, where the neighbors think he is a businessman. Kingsley, his eyes dark with despair, is the picture of precision here; his shirts are mirror-smooth, his expression carefully blank.

Movie review


Showtimes and trailer

***
"House of Sand and Fog," with Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jonathan Ahdout, Frances Fisher. Directed by Vadim Perelman, from a screenplay by Perelman and Shawn Lawrence Otto, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III. 126 minutes. Rated R for some violence/disturbing images, language and a scene of sexuality. Several theaters.

When Kathy's house, due to a bureaucratic error, is sold at auction at a price far below its worth, Behrani seizes the moment and purchases it. He hasn't reckoned with the pale, lank-haired woman who shows up at the door, increasingly upset. Behrani's wife, Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo), puzzlement in her gentle face, tries to befriend Kathy, serving her tea in delicate glasses and trying to understand what has happened. But this story is already in motion; even the law (a well-meaning lawyer, a sympathetic cop) can't keep these two forces from colliding.

"House of Sand and Fog," as a novel, is a jolting experience; you keep switching loyalties as the story goes on, never quite sure who is in the right and with whom to sympathize. The movie keeps much of that feeling; it's almost a thriller with a title deed instead of a body. Though some of the character motivations seem muddy (particularly the cop, played by Ron Eldard, who tries to help Kathy), the actors' focused, careful work keeps us mesmerized as the drama builds.

By the end, as the fog rolls in for the last time and someone asks a haunted-looking Connelly, "Is that your house?" we don't know what we want her to say. "House of Sand and Fog," if occasionally melodramatic, resists easy answers and black-and-white heroes; in its shifting sands lies genuine tragedy.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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