This is how Vadim Perelman's directorial debut The House of Sand and Fog begins and ends. In-between is the back story leading up to the policeman asking Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) that question. The house in question has been taken from her for not paying business tax. This is never fully explained other than Kathy's acknowledgement that she does not own a business and therefore being charged for business tax makes no sense. Apparantly, the dollar amount of business tax is large enough to require repossessing her house, which is quickly put up for auction. In the meantime, Kathy holds herself up from motel to motel on maxed-out credit cards and later falls in love, i.e. has an affair with a married man - a police sheriff Lester (Ron Eldard).
Enters Iranian immigrant Behrani (Sir Ben Kingsley). On the surface, he appears to be a well-to-do retired air force colonel, or at least that is the appearance he maintains at social functions such as his daughter's wedding reception. In reality, he is a penny-pinching construction worker with a night job as a convinient store clerk. Taking advantage of the seized property's low price, he buys the house as an investment plan to sell it at a much higher price. Everything seems to be going according to plan but the fog on the horizon suggests otherwise. Kathy shows up to persuade Behrani to sell the house back to the county - for her to get it back - but he naturally refuses. This is where the drama takes off, from a series of verbal exchanges to aggravated assault and subsequently homicide.
Each of the main characters takes turns to be the antagonist. Initially the victim, Kathy quickly becomes the instigator by repeatedly showing up at her alleged house against the advice of her attorney Connie Walsh (Frances Fisher), and stirring more tension with every visit. Her demeanor bears the typical screen "furious American woman who fights to get what she wants" look. In one particular scene involving Behrani, she has a wild-eyed moment as she drives off angrily. The business tax issue aside, it is quite a stretch that she eyeballs Behrani for 'stealing' her alleged house when the county is the one responsible. And despite repeated mentions of the county's fault, nothing develops between her and the county.
Kathy's knight in shining armor Lester takes chivalry to an almost racist level. He uses his badge, as well as his muscle and gun, to threaten Behrani and his family and later holds them hostage in their bathroom. He also has an additional baggage to carry, that of the wife and kids he walks out on. Otherwise, his character does not have much depth, nor does the actor's purely physical performance makes viewers want to care about him. It is obvious that everything Lester does - threatening of Behrani and walking out on his family - is only for Kathy, the woman he romances and beds in a manner of days. The only redeeming quality of his character is the Diallo scene. As gripping as it is, it could not have taken place without him.
Behrani, however, is not entirely innocent in the matter. A domineering and stubborn man, and despite his noble intentions - intending to put his son through college with the money made from selling the house - he is consumed by greed. He has excercised his patriarchal role by physically handling his wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) on occasions, as well as Kathy when she comes by to antagonize him. Nadi also drops the ball about the family's nomadic lifestyle of moving from home to home that implies that Behrani may have attempted this form of property profiteering before. But the long-sufferings of the kindly traditional Nadi does not compare to Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout), who pays the ultimate price ala Amidou Diallo for the repercussions of Behrani's actions. The real victims in the film's story are Nadi and Esmail.
The shots of fog over the horizon/mountain at intermittent points form the barometer of the story. As the tension of the drama increases, so does the fog's velocity. The fog's density also varies to convey blindness. Each of the three antagonists - Behrani, Lester and Kathy - feel completely assured of his/her actions but fail to see their ultimate rammification, which make an explosive entrance after the fog is lifted. The use of the fog shots is quite ingenious but they cannot conceal the film's flaws, some of which have already been mentioned.
Of the two stars, Kingsley is the most excellent. His mannerisms and diction is meticulously convincing. Even Behrani's 'broken' English lines are impeccably delivered. Connolly is charming in every way. She captures Kathy's affliction and her romances (in and out of bed) with Lester wonderfully. The only drawback is her "furious American woman" bit with Behrani, which comes off as a little extreme. Eldard, who plays Lester, is obviously casted because of his handsome face and gorgeous physique. There is no question he and Connolly are a picture perfect couple together, but his performance leaves much to be desired. Eldard's delivery is stiff if not forced.
Nothing about The House of Sand and Fog is remarkable, though using the Iranian ethnicity for the racial aspects of the film is a different approach. The plot devices are questionable because it does not hold enough water. The character development are cliche: a woman fights "furiously" to reclaim her propery and instigates troubles, an ethnic minority refuses to give it up and gets hell for it, and the woman's man plays her blind chivalrous knight with violent consequences. Its best moment is the Diallo scene, and that happens 20 minutes before the end. And despite her behavior and role in the story, Kathy answer to the policeman's question probably make the most sense of all of the things that take place in the film.
"No, it's not."
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