War on the Homefront

Film adaptation of novel by Andre Dubus III is a meaty morality tale

Based on Andre Dubus III’s novel, “House of Sand and Fog” dramatizes the engrossing and turbulent power struggle between recovering drug and alcohol addict Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) and a refugee Iranian colonel Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley) for possession of a San Francisco bungalow.

When her property is seized for unpaid business taxes—never mind that Kathy does not own a business—it is sold on auction the following day. The buyer is Behrani, who pays $45,000 for the house, and hopes to sell it for four times that amount. Unfortunately, the county realizes its mistake too late, and the battle between Kathy and the colonel will be a fight to the finish.

“House of Sand and Fog” is a great character study of these very determined and desperate individuals, but the real story of this film is a commentary on how America is a land of opportunity for immigrants, but also a place where people, particularly addicts, can waste their promise. This subtext is what makes the story so absorbing.

The film opens and closes with an episode not in the book, but the drama is otherwise very faithful to the source material. The narrative structure, which alternates between each character’s perspective, is quite compelling. As the film presents both sides of the story—the young woman who wrongfully lost her house and the man who rightly claimed it—each character is rendered with sympathy. This is not just because both situations are presented fairly, but also because their motivations—to recover and to sell the property, respectively—are eloquently explained.

But the film’s tone shifts slightly with the introduction of a third, pivotal character, Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), a deputy sheriff who enters into an unwise affair with Kathy. Once Burdon becomes determined to help Kathy get her house back, things are set on course for tragedy. “House of Sand and Fog” builds inexorably to a tense finale, but unfortunately gets melodramatically heavy handed in the process. Even though director Vadim Perelman hits all the proper marks, the whole thing feels a bit forced. A film that is deliberately paced throughout suddenly seems rushed in the events leading up to the final tragedy.

These flaws, however, do not detract from an otherwise powerful film-going experience. Connelly is superb as Kathy, incredibly expressive throughout the film. While her eyes speak volumes about her emotions—from shock and fear, to disbelief and rage—the rest of her body is incredibly expressive as well. Her crying scenes—and there are several––are heartbreaking.

As her adversary, Kingsley gives a performance that transcends his character as it is written in the script. He has the tougher role, and acts up a storm. The scene in which he prays to Allah is perhaps the film’s most affecting. Kingsley is simply astonishing as Behrani, and he should be rewarded with an Oscar nomination for his work here.

Connelly and Kingsley have only a handful of scenes together, but in each such case, they both make strong impressions. In support, Eldard does his best with a role that was much more fleshed out on the page. Sadly the character fails to come alive on screen.

The film is perfectly cast, and about as riveting as reading the novel, but it does lack a bit of the heart and subtlety that the book had. Readers may be disappointed by the screen version, though only slightly. Anyone else looking for a good, meaty morality tale will almost surely be sucked into “House of Sand and Fog.”

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