Subdued, haunting and elegantly handled, "House of Sand and Fog" (based on a novel by Andre Dubus III) is a memorable small drama that seemed to come out of nowhere last year and ended up landing on many top 10 lists. The film focuses on Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a depressed young woman who lives in an inherited house and has given up doing even simple, minor things like opening her mail. This results in disaster, as she finds one day that she is being evicted from her house by the county, due to an error that she thought she'd cleared up months ago. When she tries to solve the problem, she's told that her house has already been sold.
The house has been sold to Colonel Behrani (Kingsley), an Iranian immigrant who works two jobs to support wife Naderah (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and son Esmail (Jonny Ahdout). He thinks the house will be the start of a new life for his family after he sells it for a few times the cheap price he paid for it at auction, but not if Kathy has something to say about it. Accompanied by a married sheriff (Ron Eldard) that takes a somewhat unsettling desire to assist her, Kathy goes through every method she can to try and gain control of the house that was left to her.
Meanwhile, the Colonel has nearly lost his former fortune, and this investment is seen by him as a way to get out of the jobs he's currently working. A series of misunderstandings between the two parties leads to both of them moving up the stakes. The state, as per usual, is no help and going after them would take ages, as the case would get wrapped up in the system. Despite the attraction that Kathy and Lester (Eldard) find themselves sharing, Lester's desire to protect the woman and his feelings for her may lead to trouble.
"House of Sand and Fog" reminded me somewhat of the fascinating and thought-provoking documentary "An Act of Conscience", which featured a Massachusetts couple who refused to pay federal taxes as a protest against military spending. When the couple is evicted by IRS agents, they go about getting back their home, a task that becomes more difficult when a young couple purchases the home from the government for a tiny sum and moves in. The result is a stand-off that lasts for years, as the evicted couple - along with a legion of supporters - set up a non-violent protest outside.
"Sand and Fog" is lead by three strong performances. Connelly, whose striking natural beauty is still apparent even when not glammed up, turns in a marvelous performance that superbly portrays the hurt the character feels when she wakes up into a nightmare of her own doing, losing the house that it took her father so long to achieve. It's another effortlessly heartbreaking performance from the actress. Kingsley is also, as expected, quite stellar, offering an intense, subtle performance that manages to suggest layers, complexity and heart beneath a cold, stern surface. I also enjoyed the performance by Shohreh Aghdashloo as Kingsley's wife. Even the supporting efforts were good, as I appreciated Eldard's low-key effort - even though his character wasn't as developed as it should have been - and Kim Dickens turns in a saddening, powerful moment as Lester's neglected wife.
Technically, this is a mostly superb film. James Horner's score does occasionally work against the film, as it's a little too sappy in comparison to the dry elegance of the rest of the feature. Roger Deakins - no surprise - turns in another incredible effort, as his cinematography is often breathtaking. Although fog is understandable, given the title, it's a bit much at times. Production design and costume design are also first-rate.
An impressive directorial debut from Vadim Perelman, "House of Sand and Fog" never lets the film's strong feeling of melancholy overtake it. It takes a little while to get going, but it builds well, offers a series of marvelous performances and leaves a very strong impression. This is outstanding work, and one of 2003's best.
VIDEO: Dreamworks presents "House of Sand and Fog" in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is a pretty good transfer, which succeeds in some aspects and looks problematic in others. Sharpness and detail are generally consistent, with crisp detail and respectable clarity apparent in nearly all scenes.
The film's foggy sequences are surprisingly well-handled, with a smooth appearance. However, there are some low-light scenes in the film where compression artifacts are visible. Edge enhancement is also a problem - if not a major one - during several scenes. A few scattered specks also appeared on the print used, but these were barely noticable. The film's naturalistic color palette seemed well-rendered, with no smearing or other faults.
SOUND: The film's 5.1 soundtrack is very subdued, with little in the way of surround activity, aside from a few passing ambient sounds. Horner's score is given a nice spread across the front speakers, but one wishes that the filmmakers wouldn't have relied upon it so much to underline the emotion of scenes when the performances are so good anyways. Dialogue seemed clean and clear, with no distortion or other concerns.
EXTRAS: The main supplement is a commentary from director/writer Vadim Perelman, novelist Andre Dubus and actor Ben Kingsley. This is a rather low-key track, but it is informative, getting across information about differences between the novel and the film, the performances and working with the actors, and trying to get the look of the film. Kingsley's insights to character and performance are especially interesting.
Pleasantly, a 15-minute "making of" documentary gets right to the point, sidestepping the usual promotional nonsense in order to get to information such as the inspiration behind the novel, writing of the screenplay, casting and the production. There's a bit of "happy talk" from everyone involved about working with each other, but I found that it mostly got right to the point and examined all the important topics.
Also included in the supplemental section are 5 deleted scenes w/optional director's commentary, Shohreh Aghdashloo's audition tape, photo gallery, cast/crew bios and production notes.
Final Thoughts: A tragic and powerful tale, "House of Sand and Fog" offers three exceptional (all three were rightly Oscar nominated) lead performances. Dreamworks has provided a DVD with pretty good audio/video quality and a few insightful supplements. Recommended.