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Lives of desperation collide
on 31 July 2004
Penn, Crowe, Murray, Hopkins and the rest that might think they deserved the Best Actor Oscar for the 2003 film year. Forget it. The most deserving of that honor, Ben Kingsley, is right here in THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, a story of three lives that collide like a 3-way train wreck.
Kingsley is Massoud Amir Behrani, a former colonel in the service of the Iranian Shah. Forced to flee the country after the fall of the monarch, Behrani now works two jobs - convenience store clerk by night and road maintenance worker by day - to try and stem the slow drain of his savings being spent on the expensive lifestyle that his wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is used to. Perusing the paper, he sees an moneymaking opportunity in the public auction of a house confiscated by the county to pay back taxes. Massoud intends to buy the place on the cheap, fix it up, and sell it at the going market rate. Behrani is a proud man determined to regain his self-respect and the Good Life for his family. By maintaining a facade of affluence, he's already managed to marry his daughter off to another wealthy and respectable Iranian emigre. Now, he needs to put his son Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout) through college.
Unfortunately, the home is owned by Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), who inherited it from her father eight months previous. Kathy is a recovering alcoholic, who failed to deal with the county bureaucracy when she had the chance, and now it's too late to stop the sale. She's evicted, has nowhere to go, no friends, no nearby family, no money, and is truly on the edge.
Into this volatile mix comes Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), who's the police deputy assigned the uncomfortable task of tossing Nicolo into the street. Burdened by a marriage gone bad, Lester is seduced by Kathy's beauty and vulnerability, and he becomes her champion to the exclusion of common sense and professionalism. (With men, what else is new?)
Burdon aside, who's basically a fool guided by his gonads, the viewer will have to decide whom to back - Massoud or Kathy - because this intelligently scripted film doesn't favor one over the other even as the confrontation escalates beyond all bounds of rationality. There's no Hero or Villain. But for good fortune and good toilet training, you or I could be in either position.
In emotional intensity, even Sean Penn's performance in MYSTIC RIVER can't match Kingsley's here. There's a scene towards the end in a local hospital that'll knock your socks off, and for which alone Kingsley deserved Best Actor.
HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG was one of the very best films of 2003, and deserved an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.