House of Sand and Fog examines the interaction between three principal characters. Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley) was a high-ranking member of the oppressive regime of the Shah of Iran. His responsibilities involved purchasing aircraft (as he is quick to assert) and he tries to distance himself from the activities of the Shah’s secret police, who rank among the iniquitous torturers of the 20th century.
When the Ayatollahs overthrew the regime, Behrani and his family fled, settling in northern California. They’ve been living well off of the resources they had, keeping up appearances with their affluent Persian neighbors, including a lavish wedding for their daughter. But money is running low and Behrani’s two menial jobs (which he keeps secret for fear of loss of face)don’t generate sufficient income to sustain their lifestyle.
The solution, he decides, is real estate and he purchases a modest cottage at a county auction sale with the intention of quickly turning it over at a significant profit. The house had belonged to Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), a recovering alcoholic and addict whose husband has deserted her and who earns her living as a housecleaner. Nicolo was evicted from the house due to a combination of bureaucratic bungling and her own slothfulness in taking care of business. She hires a lawyer to help her, but Behrani has title and will only sell the house back at market value, several times more than he paid.
A deputy sheriff, Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), who met Kathy during the eviction, is sympathetic and tries to help her. He’s in an unhappy marriage and he and Kathy are drawn into an affair. Lester determines to make things right with Kathy’s house.
Andre Dubus III’s novel, on which the film is based, is entirely in the first person, switching voices between the three principals, seeing each development in turn from their different points of view. It also allows for the expression of the thoughts and feelings which guide each of the principals’ actions as the plot progresses. It is the interior lives of these three people that give the book its power. But it’s a tough assignment to translate that into a straightforward narrative film, which is the form chosen by Vadim Perelman, making his debut as both screenwriter and director.
The only one of the three characters realized with any success is Behrani, whose Old World values and family relationships, whose loss of status and concern for material success are well delineated. Kingsley (The Triumph of Love, Sexy Beast) makes Behrani live, bringing out the conflicted motivations of the character. (Behrani’s wife is played by veteran Persian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who also lends depth to the role of a submissive spouse who works up the courage to take a stand.)
But Jennifer Connelly (The Hulk, A Beautiful Mind) is hopelessly miscast in the role of Kathy. Connelly’s fine features, her carriage, and her voice are all wrong for the somewhat coarse, sleazy, weak-willed habitual liar that Kathy is. As a result, key moves that Kathy makes seem neither sufficiently motivated nor in keeping even with the sketchy character depicted. In Perelman’s screenplay, which shows no ear for dialogue, Ron Eldard (Black Hawk Down), as Deputy Burdon, gets stuck with the most awkward and banal lines and he is unable to make them sound any better than they are.
An ever-so-serious score by James Horner (The Missing, Windtalkers) seems heavily influenced by Gorecki’s minimalism and ponderously tries to underscore an intensity of drama that isn’t realized on screen. There are broader themes implicit in this material–the conflict of differing immigrant cultures (Kathy is Boston Irish), for example, and the competition for ever less available space. But since the drama doesn’t work, those themes lose what resonance they might have had.
It is a challenge, surely, to make a film about three unlikable characters–they all keep secrets, tell lies, make serious moral compromises and operate primarily out of selfishness. The novel makes them somewhat sympathetic by climbing inside their minds to understand why they do what they do and make the outcome seem almost inevitable. Since the film fails to communicate the necessary level of interior insight, it’s like spending two hours with people you’d just as soon never have met.