On one side of your local multiplex Jim Sheridan’s “In America” is probably painting a sentimentally uplifting portrait of immigrant life on this side of the Atlantic; now “House of Sand and Fog” appears on another screen as if to balance the equation. This elegantly somber adaptation of Andre Dubus III’s bestselling novel–the debut feature by writer-director Vadim Perelman, who’s had a successful career making commercials and music videos–presents a much more unhappy view of the experience of outsiders in this country. The film is occasionally heavy-handed, and it fails to paint both sides of its central dispute with the same degree of success, but it builds considerable cumulative power, and it showcases another bravura performance by Ben Kingsley.
Kingsley plays Massoud Amir Behrani, a onetime much-decorated colonel in the Iranian air force. Forced to flee to the United States after the fall of the shah, Behrani struggles to keep up appearances among the exile community in California, working on a road construction crew while maintaining a sumptuous suite for his family in an opulent hotel, but as his resources run out he seeks a way to refill the coffers. His solution is to buy a government-repossessed house on the state’s northern coast at auction and refurbish it sufficiently to make a big profit on a quick turnover. Unfortunately, the place he purchases is the home inherited from her father by Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), a lower-class young woman benumbed by the recent departure of her husband. Feeling abandoned and helpless, Kathy stumbles about in a daze, neglecting to open a notice from the county tax collector demanding (incorrectly, it’s later revealed) payment of a modest charge. Though a lawyer assures her that the mistake can eventually be corrected, Kathy is evicted from the house, which Behrani promptly buys. Kathy, distraught over her loss and without any resources, harasses the new owner and his family–wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and son Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout)–and is eventually aided by Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), a local deputy who, after the eviction, falls so completely for her that he abandons his wife and kids to be with her. When Behrani rejects efforts to reach an accommodation with Kathy, despite the misgivings of his wife and son, she and Lester resort to increasingly desperate, even brutal means to force him to give up his dream to save hers. The confrontation ultimately takes a tragic turn.
Clearly the piece is a wrenching case study in the difficulties that recent arrivals to the United States have in being accepted by the locals–and the Middle Eastern origin of the newcomers in this instance makes it all the more relevant to current circumstances. One feels the pain of the Behrani family all the more strongly because its members are so superbly played. Kingsley is, quite simply, amazing in his combination of quiet pride, seething ambition and (in the final reel) rage and resignation. It’s a beautifully judged and shaped performance. But he’s matched by Aghdashloo, a strikingly lovely woman who projects a perfect mixture of poise and inarticulate fear as his wife, and by Ahdout, who in many respects is the linchpin of the entire story–the gentle, conflicted figure who can sympathize with both sides of the struggle and ultimately suffers from their quarrel. Aghdashloo and Ahdout will probably not get as much attention as Kingsley, but in many respects they represent the picture’s emotional core.
The drawback is that the other side of the dispute isn’t sketched, or played, with equivalent power. The troubled Kathy is certainly meant to be as sympathetic as Behrani, but she never manages to seem more than an inexplicably dense, incapable young woman. Certainly her recent domestic troubles are designed to justify her inability to deal with practical matters, but they’re never portrayed with sufficient specificity to do so; and while there are suggestions of her deep need for family ties as a reason for her psychological depression, these aren’t fleshed out with enough force to be compelling. The result is that it’s easy to be more irritated with Kathy than moved by her plight, and Connelly’s performance, which has a one-note sort of generalized despondency to it, doesn’t transcend the limitations. Eldard’s Deputy Burton is even more of a problem. Why he should choose to leave his supposedly happy family to take up with Kathy is never successfully dramatized; it’s merely presented as a matter of irresistible, even fatal attraction. Even worse, the deputy’s final turn to violence is depicted in too melodramatic, blustery a fashion, and Eldard, normally a pleasantly naturalistic actor, doesn’t handle the transition well. One would like, in the end, to feel for Kathy and Lester as much as one does for Massoud, Nadi and Esmail. But unhappily, the construction and execution of the film aren’t sufficiently skillful for the viewer to react that way.
Still, even these flaws can’t obscure the seriousness of purpose in “House of Sand and Fog,” its ambition to be more than the lurid revenge story that the book might easily have become in the hands of less thoughtful filmmakers; and despite the imbalance on the two sides, it largely succeeds. Kingsley, Aghdashloo and Ahdout create so piercing a portrait of a family desperately trying to find a place in American society while aching for what they’ve lost that their story carries remarkable punch, and though the film’s failure to draw Kathy and Lester in an equally penetrating fashion is unfortunate, it isn’t fatal. “House of Sand and Fog” is also splendidly made from the technical standpoint, with exquisite cinematography from veteran Roger Deakins, a thoroughly expert production design and able editing by Lisa Zeno Churgin; James Horner’s spare score creates the proper mood of sadness and foreboding, though its thematic material is repetitive. In sum, “House of Sand and Fog” emerges as a somewhat shaky edifice, dramatically better grounded on one side than the other, but in its entirety well worth a visit.