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OVP: House of Sand and Fog (2003)

Film: House of Sand and Fog (2003)
Stars: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Ron Eldard, Jonathan Ahdout
Director: Vadim Perelman
Oscar History: 3 nominations (Best Actor-Ben Kingsley, Supporting Actress-Shohreh Aghdashloo, Score)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 1/5 stars

I have walked out of two films in my lifetime.  One was a movie called Gomorrah, which was the second part of a double feature and one that I (and the friend I was with) just couldn't get through after having already sat through a pretty heavy movie (to this date I have never seen it despite it getting quite a few hosannas at the time).  The second, though, was a movie that I didn't walk out of voluntarily.  I was at the Southdale Mall in Edina, and randomly there was a fire about twenty minutes into House of Sand and Fog in the mall's food court, and I had to evacuate, along with my friend Katie, and we never went back to see it.  Seventeen years later, I'm starting to cross off the remaining "missing" films of the 2003 OVP (more will be coming in the next month, so get excited), and this movie popped to the top of the list.  Little did I know what a turn the movie would take after the first twenty minutes nearly two decades after the fact.

(Spoilers Ahead) The movie is about Kathy (Connelly), a recovering drug addict whose husband has recently left her, and who has suddenly found that she's being evicted from her home for a business tax that she shouldn't have been charged, but has put a lien on her house to the point where it's being repossessed (it seems absurd that $500 would result in such a situation, but sadly believable).  Before she's able to prove to the city that she shouldn't be penalized for a tax that wasn't hers in the first place, they have already resold the house to a former Iranian Colonel who has emigrated to the United States named Massoud Behrani (Kingsley), and his family, including his wife Naderah (Aghdashloo) and their teenage son Esmail (Ahdout).  Massoud views this as a jumping off point for his family to live a similarly-luxurious lifestyle to what they achieved in Iran, but Kathy and her new boyfriend Sheriff's Deputy Lester Burdon (Eldard) are putting intense pressure on the family to give her back the house.

Here's where I want to interrupt the plot description, because honestly-this sounds like a good movie. There's a lot of really intriguing interplay at work here, and a situation where two sides are both in the right & wrong.  Massoud bought the house legally and there's a reason he can't just give the house back, but Kathy shouldn't have been penalized for a tax erroneously (even though her not opening the mail resulted in her being evacuated).  But House doesn't have the skill to try and maintain this odd sort of standoff-they don't have the prescience that someone making this film in 2020 might have had to lean into the housing crisis that was about to devastate people like Kathy nor the skill to resolve a standoff between two flawed but honorable people.  Instead, they need to make villains...even if I don't think the filmmakers realize that's what they're doing.

Because in the last thirty minutes of House of Sand and Fog, the film goes nuts.  After throwing away his marriage and potentially his career out of sexual obsession with Kathy, Lester comes to the house, finds that Kathy has attempted suicide in the driveway, and blames the Behranis, imprisoning them in a bathroom.  He then, at gunpoint, forces Massoud & Esmail to go to sign the money from the city to Kathy, but in the process Esmail is shot by an officer who thinks he is taking Lester hostage, and not the other way around, and Esmail is killed.  Lester goes to jail as a result, but that's not even the end...Massoud, unable to cope with the loss of his son, kills his wife and himself in a murder-suicide she has no say in, with the final scenes being Kathy being asked if "this is your house?" and she stoically answering "no."

This busts the film in half.  Any sort of subtlety that had been earned initially, particularly from the surprisingly subdued Kingsley, goes out the window as we keep hitting horrifying plot point after plot point.  It's a mess, and doesn't really have the time to admit that this is almost entirely Kathy & Lester's fault things go awry.  Kathy, in particular, gets away relatively unscathed (it's probable she even will get the house back after all of this), despite having ruined two families in her quest to fix a mistake that she could have corrected if she'd simply opened her mail.  The film seems to want our sympathies for Lester as well, but in 2020, I don't have time for anyone trying to make excuses for a cop that endangers the life of a young man of color (it's weird how different this movie plays today than it was intended to in 2003).  The movie becomes a sideshow of horrors, and any sort of originality from the plot evaporates.  The film won Oscar nominations for acting and music, but I think both are a stretch.  Aghdashloo & Kingsley have moments, but Aghdashloo never rises much above "long suffering wife" and Kingsley completely falls apart when he gives into his hammier instincts in the last twenty minutes (thankfully Jennifer Connelly's novocaine work didn't bump someone more interesting in Best Actress).  And the score is-well, it makes itself known.  Let's leave it at that.

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