Based on the best-selling 1999 novel by Andre Dubus III, "House of Sand and Fog" is a stark, unflinching dual character study in which both subjects are treated as severely flawed people. All fine and simple, but what is so very arresting about Vadim Perelman's auspicious directing debut is that he presents these two human beings as fully fleshed out individuals. Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) and Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley) may make the wrong decisions, some of which have negative life-altering effects on themselves and those around them, but they also have the power to feel compassion and, in turn, become sympathetic to the viewer. It's a good thing, too, because neither Kathy nor Behrani is going to get out of their dire predicament easily.
Kathy Nicolo, a former drug addict still ailing from the breakup with her husband eight months ago, is distressed when she is evicted from her Northern California seaside house over an unpaid business tax that was mistakenly billed to her. While such a snafu might have been cleared up had she not neglected opening her mail, Kathy knows no way around it and suddenly loses the home that she grew up in and that was left to her by her deceased father.
Sweeping in to purchase the property with astonishing quickness is Massoud Amie Behrani, an Iranian immigrant who moved to the United States years ago and has since been working multiple jobs in order to keep up his appearance and satisfy his wife, Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo), and teenage son, Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout). Behrani's planto raise the house's asking price and make a tidy profitgoes awry when, in desperation, Kathy tries to bargain with him herself and make him see that the house was unfairly stolen from her. When Behrani refuses to see the matter as his own problem, Kathy and new police officer boyfriend Lester Burton (Ron Eldard) progressively get deeper and deeper in over their heads. Before long, there is nowhere for anyone involved to go but down.
"House of Sand and Fog" is notable for being both a drama and a psychological thriller that might have come off as trite in lesser hands, but avoids these trappings by realistically concentrating on the people involved. For Kathy, an unhappy woman with not much going for her, her house is the only connection she has to the American Dream. When it is taken away and she no longer has the money for a place to live, Kathy finds herself on a self-destructive path. Jennifer Connelly (2003's "The Hulk
") is remarkable as the emotionally shattered Kathy, breathing poignancy and desperation into a complex role. Kathy's problems would never have occurred had she been more responsible, yes, but otherwise it is the government's error and she has done nothing wrong. Connelly makes this conundrum palpably felt.
For a long time, Behrani is unlikable, both because he has a bad temper toward his beloved family and because it is so clear that, although legal, what he refuses to do for Kathy is out of purely selfish reasons. When a key moment comes in the third act, however, Behrani proves that he is capable of true empathy. Unfortunately, his change of heart may have come too late. Ben Kingsley (2002's "Tuck Everlasting
"), like his Behrani, comes into his own near the end and sheds new light on him. When this arrives, Kingsley is nothing short of mesmerizing.
As Behrani's caring, but doubting, wife, Nadi, Shohreh Aghdashloo memorably brings multiple layers to her own part. Nadi loves her husband, but she is intentionally kept out of the loop on what is going on between Behrani and Kathy. Because of this, she fears for her family's future and isn't sure who she can trust. The underrated Ron Eldard (2002's "Ghost Ship
") also turns in a fine performance as the intriguing Lester Burton, who joins Kathy on her crusade and is willing to give up his entire family to be with her. Even as Lester starts caring for Kathy and her plight, he somehow also derives pleasure from seeing her fall off the wagon of her sobriety. It is as if, without his children, he needs someone to need him, and he chooses Kathy as his victim.
Evocatively photographed by Roger Deakins (2003's "Intolerable Cruelty
"), who gives the brooding on-location scenery of the Northern California coast a life of its own, "House of Sand and Fog" refuses to offer simple solutions and easy answers. In building its premise and characters, director Vadim Perelman takes his time before things become so intense and unpredictable that claustrophobia threatens to set in. The amazingly downbeat conclusion, which features an unforgettable symbolic images of three people on a bed, is certainly effective on its own, but doesn't quite succeed amid the bigger picture. Nothing is really solved by the time the end credits arrive, and Kathy's character arc is left wide open. It's distracting and mildly unsatisfying, but then that may be the whole point. For viewers courageous enough to withstand the bleakest of stories and the most cynical of outcomes, "House of Sand and Fog" is a challenging motion picture that deeply enthralls for the whole of its two hours.