House of Sand and Fog

Directed by Vadim Perelman
Written by Vadim Perelman and Shawn Otto, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley and Ron Eldard
Rating: ***

In a year of movies about dubious real-estate deals (Duplex, Cold Creek Manor, Under The Tuscan Sun) and bleak tales about tragic vigilantism (Mystic River, 21 Grams), House of Sand and Fog falls on both lists. Adapted from a novel by Andre Dubus III, the movie portrays the bitter battle over a beachside bungalow between a depressed young American and a haughty Iranian immigrant.

This determinedly weighty debut feature comes from Russian-born, Canadian-trained director Vadim Perelman, a former commercial director who shows none of the showy flash of other colleagues who have made the switch. His forte is spare, character-driven drama, and though the material is too high-toned to qualify as pulp, this Northern California story has all the fatalism of a classic California film noir.

Add in the spare grandness of Roger Deakins's cinematography (he does most of the Coen brothers' work), the sure cadences of the editing -- at least through the excellent first hour -- and a trio of strong performances, and you have a powerful mix. And by the conclusion, even a couple of morals: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; and, please, remember to open your mail. Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is a reformed alcoholic, working as a housecleaner and recovering from the end of her marriage, but too disorganized at the movie's start to even read her mail. She is awakened one morning by a phone call from her Midwestern mother who is threatening to come visit. The next thing she knows, the sheriff's office is at her door hammering up a notice-of-eviction sign. She is being ousted for a failure to pay a $500 business tax -- a mistake, since she doesn't own a business -- but nonetheless binding.

Forced to live in a motel, and later in her car, she seeks help through a legal-aid lawyer (Frances Fisher) but is too late. The house has already been sold at auction, for a fraction of its value, and her only recourse is to sue the county.

The new owner is Behrani (Ben Kingsley), a former air force colonel under the Shah of Iran, who is determined to win back his position in life in his new country. Having married off his daughter into a wealthy American-Iranian family, he will now buy a house, flip it for a quick profit to buy another house and do the same, proving himself as good a capitalist as any American. Behrani, while maintaining the appearance of a rich man, works on a road crew by day and behind the counter at a gas station at night. Still, he drives his Mercedes, changes into expensive suits to return from work, and maintains an over-furnished apartment. There he orders about his culture-shocked wife, Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo), showing his only soft spot for his teenaged son (Jonathan Ahdout), which starts you worrying about the boy far too soon.

Kathy haunts her old house, driving by and even managing to gain entrance (after wounding her foot on a nail) but Behrani is too full of pride to care. There's a poignant scene where, after having claimed his property, Behrani officiously presents himself to his foreman to declare he is quitting. The foreman barely registers the moment.

Enter Lester (Eldard), a policeman brimming with understanding. With his controlled, even delivery, can-do attitude and friendly disposition, he seems just the big shoulder that Kathy needs to lean on. But there are immediate warning bells. He has a wife and children and a good job as a field-training officer but is ready to throw everything away. In short order, he has Kathy drinking again, and has put both his marriage and career at risk.

As the drama tilts back and forth, between the Behranis precariously happy new home and Kathy's and Lester's desperate makeshift existence, the logic of the plot itself starts to wobble. Behrani dismisses Kathy as a careless, over-privileged American fool. She and Lester treat him as a stereotypical immigrant usurper. As the colonel's family begins to understand what he has done, he loses authority and respect. Everyone begins to push matters to extremes.

As the recklessness and hostility mount, you wish the characters would slow down a moment and take a deep breath. But, of course, they don't; and though there are instances of human recognition between the antagonists, the momentum of the story carries through to a dark conclusion. There is both a sense of disappointment and relief when House of Sand and Fog crosses over into improbability, when the viewer can sit back, breathe easy again. All this trouble over the failure to open an envelope.

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