Property is at the center of House of Sand and Fog. Pitted against one another for ownership of the titular residence off the San Francisco coast are Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) and Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley). She’s miserably addict, following her husband’s leaving (this rendered in a couple minutes worth of flashback as she lies to her mother about how great things are going). He’s former Iranian Air Force, run out of town when the Shah fell, now working multiple menial jobs (road crew, gas station attendant) to ensure that his family continues to live in the semi-opulent style to which are accustomed.
Kathy lost her house, inherited from a father who worked 30 years to possess it, because she didn’t open her mail for several weeks, thus missing a wrongly issued notice that she owed a commercial property tax. As she doesn’t know of this bad news, she’s evicted from the house, which is subsequently auctioned off. Behrani scoops it up for a pittance, initiates “improvements” (namely, a widow’s walk to look over the somewhat distant sea), in order to sell it for lots more, then refuses to sell it back for the original price when the error is found out by Kathy’s lawyer, Connie (icy Frances Fisher).
Based on the best-selling novel by Andre Dubus III, Vadim Perelman’s movie sets up this conflict as a general metaphor for a raft of other conflicts, between cultures, nations, generations, genders, and races. While it boasts a signature powerhousey performance by Kingsley and a more intriguing one by Connelly, it’s weighted down by its overstated significances and emerging tragedies, which demand distracting plot contrivances.
Kathy is, in Behrani’s resentful eyes, the archetypal wifty “American,” undeserving of her privilege, an unwitting participant in U.S. domination. When Kathy’s cause is taken up by Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), her crimes only look compounded. This especially when he adopts an ineptly macho pose, acting the part of a racist thug with immigration department connections in order to scare Behrani into giving up the house, Lester is more pathetic than potent. The fact that Lester also falls in love with Kathy, leading him to abandon his aggravated wife (Kim Dickens) and teary kids, confuses an already confusing situation. Though Kathy is distressed enough to welcome his attentions, she’s also unstable enough not to recognize what’s at issue—either for herself (feeling abandoned) or for Lester (needing to be needed).
Conversely, Kathy sees the Colonel as a tyrant, bullying his traditionally submissive wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and teenaged son Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout). As Behrani understands this to be suitable patriarchal behavior (he presumes to own Nadi, and to be passing on property and rights pertaining to Esmail), embodying the kind of order that he sees missing in lax U.S. citizens, there’s no way that he’s going to back down when he’s so accused. Indeed, when Connie informs him of the legal niceties involved, and that he might indeed do the right thing and return the house to this dispossessed girl without actually losing anything, he knows he’s won. He’s in the right, he’s going to use the U.S. system against itself, he’s going to reign again, if only in his own household and the estimation of his relatives.
This sense of melodrama stems from the film’s insistence on both Kathy and Behrani’s urgent motional and political investments in the house. No one can back down from his or her ardent position, and that allows the film to drift implausibly into overheated situations. As Kathy’s emotional situation becomes increasingly dire, Lester thinks he’s got his together, asserting that, once he’s slept with her, he’ll be able to tell wifey “the truth about how I feel.” That he has little inkling of consequences or really, how he “feels,” is par for his course. Eldard is a resourceful and mostly underused actor, but his part here is comprised of emotional leaps, from despair to devotion to desperation, and it’s increasingly difficult to follow his thinking, as even his desire to save Kathy soon warps into an anomalous test of his own will.
In this capacity, Lester repeatedly fulfills Behrani’s expectations of the ugly American, at the same time confirming Behrani’s self-understanding as a man of refinement and insight. He sees right through Lester’s tough posing and complains to his superior officer, a turn of events that leaves everyone compromised by the law. This development—Kathy, Lester, and Behrani are all feeling marginalized and beset by mainstream institutions—shifts their relationships to one another. Once white guy Lester loses his legal (and presumption of cultural) authority, his desperation quite exceeds that demonstrated previously by the usual outsiders to power, Kathy and Behrani.
This is the most forceful indictment made by The House of Sand and Fog: it acknowledges that a sense of helplessness inspires bad behavior, whether self-destructive or aggressive, as much as any more common notion that power corrupts. That such loss and damage are premised on the desire (right?) to own property and control capital, is as gloomy a reading of the “American Dream” as any in a film this year.