Maybe I’m just hard to please.
Yesterday, I wrote about Summer Movies, and seven pictures – the one we went to see, plus six previews – that did not make us forget Casablanca. Though to be fair, I do not know if Casablanca was released in the summer. Back then, they may not have even made such distinctions.
“It’s just moveece!”
Summer movies are, for the most part, for children. (Three exceptions I’ve enjoyed this summer were Beginners, Midnight in Paris and The Trip.) In the summer season, what it generally boils down to is how skillfully the formula is tweaked and executed, Judd Apatow being the frontrunner, till somebody else takes the crown.
I have this idea of what, for me at least, makes a good movie: an original storyline, believable characters, credible dialogue and a resolution you do not see coming, delivered by actors who are appealing, and can pull it all off without histrionic or computer-enhanced pyrotechnics.
Okay, so one day, I’m flipping around the channels, and I am confronted by the entire package. By the standards I’ve established, this is a really good movie.
It’s called House Of Sand And Fog (2003), and it easily meets my criteria. It has all the elements a good movie needs to have.
House Of Sand And Fog is based on an acclaimed novel, written by Andre Dubus III. I never read the book, but the movie (written and directed by Vadim Perelman) hews closely to the original material. How do I know that? I don’t, for certain. It just feels like it does. It’s a booky kind of movie. Which, to me, means the story moves forward organically, rather than via the obligatory progression that current movies invariably adopt, which is, “Organic, orgshmanic. What would be a great ‘next thing’ that could happen?”
House Of Sand And Fog presents us with flawed but basically decent characters. No arch-villains. No superheroes. No drug lords. No power-crazed Titans of Industry. It’s just regular people, compelled by circumstances to behaviorally cross the line.
Here’s the story. A recovering screw-up unjustly loses her house, which is immediately auctioned off. In an effort to benefit his (Iranian) immigrant family by “flipping” the house for a quick killing, the new owner fixes the place up, and then quadruples the asking price. Though they acknowledge their mistake, the government agency refuses to pay the now jacked-up (though current market value) asking price to buy the house back and return it to its rightful owner. The recovering screw-up then enlists the assistance of her new police officer boyfriend to help recover the house, and tragedy ensues.
The movie instantly captures my attention with its ringing plausibility, enhanced by gritty performances, primarily by Jennifer Connelly as the recovering screw-up and Ben Kingsley as the proud, Iranian ex-Colonel. But the real star is the writing. As a writer, I sometimes play this game with myself, wherein I rewrite the movie in my head, trying to make it more truthful and more effective. In this movie, I found virtually nothing I would change.
The dialogue is consistently on the money. The characters say the right things, in a naturalistic style and just the right amount of words. Most impressive of all was that the scenes seem to start and end at precisely the right moment, avoiding melodramatic excess, while pitch-perfectly advancing the plot.
I became totally absorbed by this movie, which I came into very close to the beginning. But as I continued watching, I made a disturbing discovery.
I did not like this movie.
It wasn’t just the violence, which I am famously “down” as being no fan of. I was appalled by its bleakness and its relentlessness. Notwithstanding its step-by-step believability, by the movie’s end, the mounting carnage reaches near satirical proportions. The accumulated atrocities rise to the point where I felt “this close” to exploding with laughter. While simultaneously being sick to my stomach.
Two suicide attempts (by the same person). A needless fatal shooting. A homicide by poisoning. A successful suicide (by a different person). And a guy goes to the slammer. The character who emerges the best from this catastrophe – the recovering screw-up – is, judging by the final shot in the movie, merely traumatized for life. She was the lucky one.
Cumulatively, it was too much for me. I felt emotionally violated. Bordering on abused.
House Of Sand And Fog is a quality picture, the type I am always searching for and too infrequently find.
Still, I wish I had never seen it.
The achievement made me happy. But the movie made me…
Oh, man. It was brutal.