An inexorably tragic tale about several people stumbling over into the dark side of the American Dream, “House of Sand and Fog” is a faithful, powerful and superbly acted adaptation of Andre Dubus III’s international bestseller. A spare and focused first feature by Russian-born commercials director Vadim Perelman, this study of a fateful collision over ownership of a house between a proud Iranian immigrant military man and a down-and-out young woman is grim review-driven fare that will rely heavily upon the momentum of awards season to cross over to a wider public. Prospects look possibly more promising on foreign turf, where pic could get a good boost from a berth in a prominent festival early next year.
Films this deterministic and bleak don’t often get made in Hollywood these days, but right now there are three of them –“Mystic River,” “21 Grams” and this one, which could prompt speculation that perhaps only now is the public seeing the first significant group of post-9/11 movies.
Adaptation by Perelman and fellow first-time scribe Shawn Otto effectively telescopes the action of Dubus’ gripping novel, which alternates between the p.o.v.s of the two leading characters before expanding its perspective in the final stretch. Main loss, necessarily, is the distinctive first-person voice of Col. Massoud Amir Behrani, a former officer in the Shah of Iran’s air force who, as the story starts, identifies his best shot at giving his family a solid foothold in the United States after years of struggle to maintain respectability.
Having just successfully married off his beautiful daughter into a prosperous Iranian-American family, Behrani (Ben Kingsley) hatches a plan to buy a seized property at auction and turn it around quickly at a big gain. For Behrani, the scheme is motivated less by profiteering than by necessity, as he’s been working in humiliating jobs cleaning highways and behind the counter at a convenience store while supporting his long-suffering wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and teenage son Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout) in style in a luxurious San Francisco apartment.
By selling this first house, then perhaps a second and third, Behrani believes he can restore his family to the comforts it enjoyed under the shah before the ascendance of the “damn ayatollahs.”
The home he acquires, an attractively shabby bungalow in a woodsy suburban area, is one just lost by Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), who has been evicted over non-payment of business taxes. The whole affair has been a mistake; there had never been a business operated on the premises, and the amount in question is only $500.
But Kathy, a beautiful but damaged former drug addict whose father died several months back and whose husband recently split, never bothered opening her mail and therefore missed all the warnings.
Kathy tries to rectify things through a legal aid attorney (Frances Fisher), but Behrani already has title to the house and in the end she will have to sue the county over the blunder before she can reclaim what’s rightfully hers. In the meantime, she’s completely at loose ends, sleeping in her old car, her property in storage, her life in tatters.
But kindness from a stranger comes in the handsome form of Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard). Originally assigned to escort Kathy out of the house, Lester casually keeps tabs on her thereafter, his gestures of help soon developing into sympathy and, inevitably, passion. Lester is unhappily married, sticking around only for his two kids, but soon confesses that he feels “found” with Kathy, who is emotionally cautious but has no reason not to embrace the only prospect life offers her.
In an intricate succession of mistakes, wrong decisions, happenstance and bad luck, the friction between the vying parties becomes worse, exacerbated by mutual suspicions and knee-jerk prejudices. Disdainful of Americans for being soft and undisciplined and offended at being commonly mistaken for an Arab or a gypsy, Behrani considers Kathy commonplace and a whore.
For their part, Kathy and Lester view Behrani as a money-grubbing usurper, immorally taking what’s not rightfully his.
Still, momentary hopes spring from little bursts of humanity that emerge from the rigid positions. Despite Lester’s advice, Kathy can’t keep away from her old home; on one visit to protest the addition of a widow’s walk Behrani is adding to officially give it an ocean view, Kathy steps on nails, and is moved by the doting attention lavished upon her by Nadi. At the same time, young Esmail comes to feel sorry for the bedraggled woman.
Sad ironies abound: the spectacle of a skilled aviator, who still prominently displays a photograph of him with the shah in his living room, reduced to menial work; a daughter losing in a matter of months the legacy her father worked years to secure; a man, Lester, repeating the unwanted pattern set by his own father of leaving his kids, and benignly reintroducing to substance abuse the very woman he’s dedicated to helping; and immigrants showing a better grasp of how to work the system than lifelong Americans.
All these subtleties and nuances, worked out by Dubus in his book, contribute to a story bracingly devoid of good guy/bad guy dynamics. Just as both sides are technically in the right and justified in their feelings, so are both enormously flawed and culpable for the events that unwind so sadly.
While maintaining the book’s delicate balance and a fair measure of its tension, which perceptibly sags around the mid-way point but later picks up again, Perelman has made a film dominated more than anything by its actors. The casting is well-nigh perfect from top to bottom.
Kingsley has always been actor of great precision and discipline, and these traits find a perfect match in the character of Behrani, a man who wears his everyday clothes as if they were a uniform and often speaks as if giving orders. Physically imposing, mentally organized and procedurally correct, Behrani is clearly doomed to forever be a military officer at heart, a precarious fate in his present stage of life. Kingsley commands every scene he’s in as he delivers one of his major screen performances.
Managing to look stunning even in the most reduced of circumstances, Connelly injects her touching and emotionally fluid performance with occasional bursts of light-heartedness and tentative hope, touches that flesh Kathy out and provide welcome respite from her dominant despair. Both Connelly and Kingsley seem to walk straight out of the book’s pages onto the screen.
The major welcome surprise is Eldard, long a familiar face from films and TV but an actor who, until now, has never had a definitive role with which the public could identify him. Although Lester triggers the drama’s nastiest and most unwelcome action when he threatens Behrani, Eldard has by then provided the character with vulnerability, thoughtfulness and innumerable shadings. It’s a tricky part, one important not to make too off-putting, and Eldard puts it over superbly.
Also outstanding is Aghdashloo, a vet Iranian actress whose first film role was in Abbas Kiarostami’s “The Report” in the mid-’70s; she makes Nadi considerably more beautiful than one imagines her in the novel but movingly conveys her abundant human qualities. Screen newcomer Ahdout is also very impressive as Behrani’s smart, obedient son. Kim Dickens and Carlos Gomez register strongly in their brief roles as, respectively, Lester’s distraught wife and an internal affairs officer.
Despite the fact that the house scenes were shot in Malibu, they mix seamlessly with the Northern California locations of other scenes to create the strong sense of place enhanced by Maia Javan’s production design and the generally in-tight compositions of lenser Roger Deakins, who creates palpable atmosphere without any showing off. James Horner’s piano-and-strings-dominated score sets a tone of tragic foreboding perhaps too strongly at the outset, but generally amplifies the dissonant emotions and fatal inevitability.