House of Sand and Fog arrives draped in an air of quasi prestige. The title makes it sound like a lost collaboration between Bob Vila and Carl Sandburg, and the film, too, has an echo of literary pedigree: It’s adapted from a novel by Andre Dubus III, whose father’s short story ”Killings” served as the basis for ”In the Bedroom.” So let me say right up front: Don’t be intimidated by the movie’s end-of-the-year high glaze. ”House of Sand and Fog” has its pretensions, but mostly it’s a vigorous and bracingly acted melodrama spun off from a situation that’s pure human-thriller catnip.
Jennifer Connelly, with her gorgeous sad eyes, has a gift for playing women who have fallen from grace and are fighting their way back. She gives her most delicate and subtle performance yet as Kathy Nicolo, a troubled Bay Area housecleaner who learns that she has been evicted from the comfy, ramshackle beach-block home she inherited from her father. (The city says she failed to pay an obscure tax.) Kathy, a recovering druggie lethargically depressed over the end of her marriage, hires a lawyer to regain ownership of the property. But the city has already put the house on the block, and it is quickly snapped up by Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an Iranian émigré and former colonel in the Shah’s air force who is desperate to reinstate the honor, and fortunes, of his family.
It would be easy to imagine a version of this movie played for xenophobic revenge, with, say, Michael Douglas growling out the line ”Start packing — ’cause this is my house!” The fascination of ”House of Sand and Fog” is the way that it twists and tangles our allegiances. Neither party, ironically, has much love for the house. Behrani plans to sell it as quickly as he bought it (at four times the price), and for Kathy it’s less a nest than a base of survival. She is ultimately to blame for her predicament (she didn’t bother to open her mail, hence the missed eviction warnings), though it’s easy to see why she takes up with a dogged cop (Ron Eldard) who’s willing to smash the rules to get the house back. Behrani has no sympathy for Kathy, yet in trying to better the lives of his wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and son (Jonathan Ahdout), he is hardly a villain. He’s a fallen Middle Eastern warrior who transforms himself into a scrappy American capitalist. Kingsley, carrying his body like armor, sculpting each line into a bitter dart of pride, plays fierceness with a powerful tug of sorrow.
”House of Sand and Fog” is the first feature directed by Vadim Perelman, a crafter of commercials who grew up in the former Soviet Union, and perhaps it’s that blend of backgrounds that allows him to divvy up his empathy with such skill. For most of ”House of Sand and Fog,” morality and suspense become one, though I do wish that the movie didn’t spiral into the most shocking of tragedies. Just because a scenario turns dark doesn’t mean that it’s convincing. ”House of Sand and Fog” is artful until it lunges for Art.