A former addict barely clinging to sobriety, Kathy becomes romantically involved with the equally anesthetized -- and married -- policeman Lester (Ron Eldard), the officer who removes her from her home. She drifts deeper into dissolution and begins smoking, and, more disastrously, drinking. Instead of staying away from her former home, Kathy seems drawn back to it like some character in a gothic thriller.
Nevertheless, Kathy has the presence of mind to go to a legal aid lawyer (Frances Fisher) and take steps to reclaim the house from the county. But it has since been bought and occupied by a ramrod refugee from the Ayatollah's Iran, Col. Behrani (Ben Kingsley) and his family. For Behrani, ownership of the house is a way for him to step out of the lowly ranks of the destitute immigrant and regain his dignity after grueling days spent working on a road crew and a gas station nightshift.
It is understandable why director Vadim Perelman, who emigrated to the West from the former Soviet Union when he was 14, would be attracted to House of Sand and Fog, with its interesting, but underdeveloped subtext about the difference between American and immigrant values.
Beneath the surface battle for the house is a far more compelling story about self-indulgent Americans like Kathy who take their gifts for granted, and people like the colonel, who work unceasingly to turn crumbs into a meal. When it is not simply ineffectual and dreary, House is a portrait of what America's land of milk and honey can look like from the outside. And Behrani is both an unusual and very familiar cinematic archetype. Despite his exotic cultural conditioning, Behrani has the same kind of self-possession and fight-for-his-rights resolve that, ironically, marks all-American film icons like Clint Eastwood.
Kingsley gives a complicated portrait of a man who fluctuates from victim to bully, but never wavers in his certainty that he is entitled to the house that the apathetic Kathy has sacrificed. Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo as Behrani's wife and Jonathan Ahdout as their teenage son also convey the pathos and uncertainty of the immigrant's life. With no country to return to, the family is more profoundly homeless than Kathy and therefore more desperate to fight.
But every time Connelly appears onscreen, the story takes a significant step backward in terms of momentum and energy. Connelly is undeniably beautiful, and those chambray eyes and fragile looks have been used to evoke vulnerability and angst in many of her films from Requiem for a Dream to A Beautiful Mind. But here she relies on her looks to tell the story, giving little indication her distress over the loss of her father's house.
On a more immediate level, House of Sand and Fog is about the emotional importance both Kathy and Behrani place on the house, and how their obsession with fighting to keep it allows them to do grievous injury to each other. There is disastrous misunderstanding on both sides, which eventually leads to an act of senseless violence.
In a Hollywood more accustomed to action, light comedy and romance, films like House of Sand and Fog or 21 Grams may be noticeable improvements from a season of Elfs. But it would be wrong to presume that just because House of Sand and Fog is serious and grim, it must also be good.
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