House of Doom and Gloom

The Riveting but Overcooked "House of Sand and Fog"

“Some dreams can’t be shared,” warns the tagline for “House of Sand and Fog.” And thus the ominous stage is set for dreams to collide: those of Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) a recovering addict and housecleaner, trying to keep her life together after her husband has left her; and those of Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), a former Iranian colonel who, after serving in the military under the shah, emigrated to America with his family.

Kathy vs. Colonel
The county evicts Kathy from her house, a ramshackle San Francisco bungalow with a tiny view of the ocean, due to a supposed unpaid business tax that turns out to be a clerical error. By the time Kathy discovers the error it is too late: Her house, left to her by her deceased father and auctioned by Pacific County, has been purchased by Behrani.

Behrani has spent most of his fortune from his colonel days in order to appear prosperous so his daughter can marry into a good family. The bungalow is shabby and unimpressive compared to his former palatial residence on the Caspian Sea, but he hopes to resell the bungalow for a profit.

Kathy sees the house as rightfully hers. It is all she has. Behrani sees the house, with its ocean view, albeit a pitiful one, as his family’s ticket to prosperity in America. The house, for Behrani, represents a means to regaining the prestige he enjoyed in Iran.

It’s mine… NO, mine!
Emotional, sometimes violent, clashes between Behrani and Kathy, interspersed with dramatic but sometimes repetitious shots of the rolling ocean waves (with requisite fog coming and going, of course) provide the framework for this 126-minute thriller.

But first-time director Vadim Perelman masterfully evokes sympathy for both Kathy and the Behrani family. The interaction between them alternates between antagonism and sympathy. The sympathy is palpable, and at times it seems as if the two parties sense each other’s desperation for a life of dignity, a dignity felt to be lost somewhere in the past.

Especially compelling as a character is Nadi Behrani, played by Shohreh Aghdashloo. Aghdashloo is a striking woman to begin with, but whether she is serving tea in the bungalow or attempting to assimilate into American culture with little command of English, she is a gracefully commanding presence on the screen. Her gorgeous, fashionable clothes and ornate furniture, which stand out in sharp relief against the shabby backdrop of the bungalow, serve as a poignant reminder of a prosperous life lost.

Book vs. Movie
Readers who have read Andre Dubus’ book will enjoy a tight fit between page and screen. One departure, however, is the portrayal of Kathy’s perception of the house itself. The book depicts a woman who deeply loves her home, whereas the film simply shows a desperate woman who needs a house. An ad nauseam number of Jennifer Connelly sad-green-eyes shots hammer home Kathy’s desperation.

This film’s denouement is dark, dramatic, painfully tragic, and perhaps a bit too much. At the same time, Perelman maintains a fairly riveting, high level of drama throughout the film.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend waiting until the video comes out, but I would say: Don’t pay more than a matinee price. You’ll want to see the light of day after you watch this thing of brooding.