Based on the highly evocative novel by Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog is an acutely painful domestic drama that degenerates (in a good way) into a frighteningly realistic, stunningly well-acted kitchen sink thriller.
Our protagonist, Kathy (Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly), is a seriously depressed young woman. Her husband has left her, her finances are a mess and a host of old demons are scratching at her door. A recovering drug addict and alcoholic, Kathy is barely clinging onto her tattered life. The final straw arrives when the county forecloses on the Northern California home she inherited and announces that the building will be auctioned off in two days. Seems that, in her depressive funk, Kathy has failed to take notice of the county's warnings. The foreclosure is nothing more than a taxation error, but—with no money or time—there's precious little Kathy can do to fight her eviction.
While poor Kathy is getting booted out on the streets, a struggling Iranian immigrant named Massoud Amir Behrani swoops in and purchases her house. Beharni (played with steely stoicism by fellow Oscar winner Sir Ben Kingsley) is a former Colonel in the Iranian army. His considerable fortunes went away with the fall of the Shah, however, and he now finds himself working menial labor jobs and putting up a brave front for friends and neighbors. By sinking all his family savings into Kathy's seaside bungalow, Beharani sees an escape from his life of poverty and lies.
Kathy eventually convinces the county that the repossession of her home was incorrect, but—by that time—Behrani, his wife and teenage son have already moved in. What follows is an ugly, yet riveting clash of wills from which no one emerges unscathed. Some viewers may find House of Sand and Fog an unpleasant outing, as neither of the main characters is particularly admirable. But then, neither are they villains. They are simply two human beings at the end of their respective ropes caught in all but impossible circumstances. Both have invested so much of their stubborn pride in the titular dwelling that neither can back down. For Kathy, the house is the last shred of her dignity and stability. For Behrani, the house is his last-ditch effort to fulfill the American Dream. The film is at its best when it's fiddling with our loyalties. At times we sympathize with Kathy—at other times we side with Behrani. In the end, we feel for both.
Some may find it odd to discover that the central location is no stately palace, but a ramshackle seaside home with a peeling picket fence. The humble nature of the place only drives home the film's central metaphor. This isn't about money or greed: It's about heroic pride—the kind of hubris that Aristotle saw as the central element to the “tragic flaw.” And these are nothing if not tragic heroes.
First-time director Vadim Perelman brings an immigrant's eye to the film, using some beautifully moody, misty cinematography to capture this slow curdling of the American Dream. He's also chosen his cast quite wisely. Connelly and Kingsley are simply superb in their roles. 21 Grams may have the best trio of performances this year, but House of Sand and Fog has the best duo. The escalating war between Kathy and Behrani is frighteningly mesmerizing.
It could be argued (quite convincingly) that the film goes too over-the-top toward the end, compounding brutal heartache with bloody heartbreak. It is in keeping with the source material, though, and cements the positively Greek nature of the tragedy. Despite its heavy-handed unhappiness, House of Sand and Fog is a cathartic character study worthy of serious Oscar consideration.