The House of Misery: Mark Kermode Endures a Gothic Melodrama and a Western to Make You Wince
Kermode, Mark, New Statesman (1996)
Earlier this year, Mike Figgis's underrated romp Cold Creek Manor proved that "property horror" thrillers are basically ghost stories without the ghosts--tales of housebuyers watching their dream homes turn to nightmares when the previous tenants refuse to move out. This week, the ominously entitled House of Sand and Fog goes even further, offering what is essentially Cold Creek Manor with A-levels. The acting is more "thespian" (Ben Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo have both received Oscar nods), the source material more celebrated (Andre Dubus III's bestselling novel was championed by Oprah, no less) and the overall effect more downbeat. Yet underneath it all, this is a nuts-and-bolts gothic melodrama dressed up as thoughtful art--no bad thing in itself, perhaps, but not a recipe for a fun night out.
Evocatively shot by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, House of Sand and Fog does credit to its first-time director, the commercials graduate Vadim Perelman. Under the surface, the film explores serious issues, most notably themes of displacement. Kingsley's Massoud Amir Behrani is a former Iranian colonel forced to take menial jobs in the US after fleeing his country, now desperately trying to buy his way back into the property market to secure a future for his wife and son. Mean while, Jennifer Connelly's ragged Kathy Nicolo is a recovering alcoholic, driven to homelessness by a bureaucratic error and now desperate to regain the house bequeathed to her by her sorely missed father. In the ensuing conflict, we find parallels with the traumas of international migration and occupation--made more profound by the fact that neither side is demonised or ridiculed. On the contrary, Perelman's characters have credible motives and keep their feet on the ground, even as the narrative spirals into melodramatic excess.
Less convincing is Ron Eldard's corrupt cop, who seems to have wandered in from another movie entirely (Unlawful Entry, perhaps?) and who reminds us that we've seen this story before in more trashy, and more mindlessly entertaining, attire. By the time the inevitably tragic denouement rolls around, we feel that we have indeed suffered for our art.
As an antidote to the housebound misery of House of Sand and Fog, you may be tempted to plump for the wide open vistas of The Missing, a revisionist western from the director Ron Howard, the former Happy Days star behind such feel-good gems as Splash and Apollo 13. …