House of Sand and Fog

(2003) *** 1/2 R
126 min. DreamWorks. Director: Vadim Perelman. Cast: Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly, Ron Eldard, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jonathan Ahdout.

The history of the world comes down to real estate: "highway robbery," coercive deals, conquering, planting flags, squatting. In various Holy Lands, men and women fight tooth and nail for what they believe to be their birthrights or, indeed, divine rights. It's a matter of faith to believe we can own the land, and a matter of testament to defend the homestead from invader infidels. As we say in America, "Praise the Lord and pass the bullets!" In his prodigious feature film debut, Russian-born director Vadim Perelman puts Andre Dubus III's novel House of Sand and Fog into the flesh-and-blood emotional and visceral terms of a Sophoclean tragedy for our times.

Like Antigone, House of Sand and Fog is a tragedy of well-matched protagonists letting their ideals lead them into ill-advised action. Ben Kingsley plays Massoud Amir Behrani, a former Iranian army colonel who experiences a precipitous fall from greatness when he moves his family to Northern California at the dawn of the 1990s. With quiet desperation cloaked in a suit-and-tie costume, Behrani attempts to enable his family to live beyond its means, but providing his daughter a proper wedding banquet and his wife and teenage son with an opulent apartment requires a round-the-clock series of humbling blue-collar jobs (workplaces worthy of his abilities have only shown him the door).

Jennifer Connelly plays Kathy Nicolo, an alcoholic and presumably undiagnosed clinical depressive who shuts down after her husband leaves. Only the cold-sweat notion of a visit from her mother rouses the wobbly Nicolo from (water)bed to wade through a pile of unopened mail at her doorstep. Before she knows it, she's being forcibly evicted from her inheritance: the house left her by her recently-departed father. Among the unopened mail are bogus tax demands predicated on a clerical error, but before Nicolo's newly-minted lawyer (Frances Fisher) can say "boo," Behrani has invested the last of his savings into scooping the bayside home off the auction block for a relative pittance and upgrading it for resale. Behrani has no idea that the home was sold under false pretenses--after laboriously convincing his family to move in until the home can be resold, he too has nowhere else to go.

In the ensuing clash, two rights make a wrong, with each side callously prejudging the other and cultivating irrational but understandable hatred. The story runs on dramatic irony: only the audience has all of the facts, which allow us to be sympathetic to both sides of the conflict. Dubus (whose late father wrote the source story for In the Bedroom) throws in human catalysts to bring to bear forces of society and fate: the police officer (Ron Eldard) who falls for the woman he must evict maintains a racist, volatile suspicion of immigrants, while Behrani's wife (the exceptional Iranian film star Shohreh Aghdashloo) and blossoming teenage son (Jonathan Ahdout), consciously and not, demand American success. Every character cradles an armful of fatal flaws, among them Nicolo's alcoholism and depression and Behrani's abuse of women and rattled, defensive pride.

For much of the film's running time, House of Sand and Fog is austere to a fault in its sensitive, nuanced storytelling. Each step forward, in and of itself, seems dreadfully plausible until the story finally overheats into the melodrama of an emotional horror movie ("Don't go in there!"). A tragic price must be paid for cathartic lessons to be fully seen, heard, and assimilated, and Kingsley and Connelly expertly serve as conduits of that emotion. Kingsley's steely discipline (emblematized by his accounting of a Snickers bar on his hard-hat job) faces challenge after challenge, triggering rage and, finally, a grief that decimates him; Perelman abets Kinglsey's crack work by variously letting the actor's imperious frame dominate or recede into the frame. Connelly's lost-soul tailspin plays out in her deep-welled eyes and her tainted beauty, as mocking as the American Dream. Meanwhile, cinematographer Roger Deakins (the regular Coen Brothers collaborator who also shot Connelly's A Beautiful Mind) regards the terrible beauty of the commodified, unfeeling observer: nature.

The world round, the home provides people's assumptive center of gravity, but in fact, the square-footed prize is tenuous, ephemeral, like the feigned power of Behrani's uniform and badges, or the comfort of Nicolo's bottle. But indignity isn't the only sure thing: at the film's midpoint, the house of sand and fog is tentatively shared in a gesture of urgent compassion, as Behrani's wife, shadowed by her son, tends to Niccolo's wounds and washes her feet in the bathtub. Shakespeare codified the enlightening value of tragedy in his Romeo and Juliet: "Go hence and have more talk of these sad things."

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