Nuance Gets Evicted From The 'House of Sand and Fog'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2003

A sickening sense of inexorability propels "House of Sand and Fog," adapted from Andre Dubus III's best-selling 1999 novel, which sadly seems to gain resonance only as a political allegory. The story of people on two edges of the American Dream -- one is desperately trying to recapture it, while the other is just as desperately striving to achieve it -- the book tackled with intelligence, compassion and even subtle humor the tragic consequences of moral certainty.

Most of those layers have been leached out of the movie, if only because of the opposite imperatives of literature and film. Where one is able to delve into complex issues of ambiguity and between-the-lines irony, the other must streamline and cut away for maximum clarity. The result here is a largely episodic movie whose series of disastrous decisions begins to take on the nauseating force of an imminent catastrophe: Rubberneckers might want to watch the carnage, but why would anyone else?

"House of Sand and Fog" opens the day that Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) is evicted from the Bay Area bungalow she grew up in and, it gradually becomes clear, to which she has repaired to continue her recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Although she's clean and sober, her life is something of a mess: Her husband has left her, she has a low-paying job cleaning houses, and she has a habit of not opening her mail. That last tendency has led to a misunderstanding with the county tax office, which has in turn led to today's eviction.

While Kathy puts her things in storage, moves into a motel and begins looking for legal advice, a man named Massoud Behrani buys the house at auction, with plans to improve the property and sell it for three times what he paid. But he's no real estate wheeler-dealer: Behrani is a former Iranian Air Force colonel who immigrated after the Islamic revolution and since has held down menial jobs to restore his family's fortunes. He buys Kathy's house with all he has left, his every hope and dream for his wife and son invested in this one seemingly simple transaction. When Kathy decides to fight him for the house, the two embark on an ominous, ultimately deadly course of escalating threats and last-ditch actions.

Ben Kingsley may not have been born to play Massoud Behrani, but the actor and the character are a perfect fit: Kingsley's trim physique and air of intense focus could not be better suited to Behrani's tightly wound sense of honor and his latent violence (according to press notes, Dubus indeed had Kingsley in mind as he wrote the book). Shohreh Aghdashloo, as Behrani's wife, Nadi, is a major movie star in her native Iran and is finally receiving deserved recognition in this country. Her portrayal of a woman at once haughty and vulnerable, chilly and kind, is easily the most revelatory in a film graced by complex, deeply textured characterizations.

Sadly, the layers these two evoke aren't as easily found in Kathy, even though Connelly is just as well suited to her role as Kingsley is to his. Behrani may not always be perfectly sympathetic, but his motivations are always clear and comprehensible; Kathy, on the other hand, quickly begins to look like a selfish, spoiled young woman constitutionally incapable of seeing past her own xenophobia and misguided sense of injury. Her enlightenment, when it's finally at hand, isn't satisfying as much as infuriating. No character in recent memory is less deserving of catharsis.

First-time writer-director Vadim Perelman, who worked as a commercial director in Canada, has executed "House of Sand and Fog" with admirable dexterity, infusing each event with almost unbearable tension and foreboding. Tastefully shot and designed, with such consistently fine performances, this surely marks the arrival of a talent to watch. If "House of Sand and Fog" ultimately feels like a failed exercise, it has less to do with Perelman's limitations than with a book that would have been better served by staying on the page. What should have been a nuanced exploration of the roots of violence turns out to be a cautionary tale about opening your mail.

House of Sand and Fog (126 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for some violence/disturbing images, language and a scene of sexuality.

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