A few months ago, the little-seen (and underrated) Duplex explored, with broad slapstick and lunatic exaggeration, the relationship between people and their real estate—how everything they were, are, and ever would be could come to be represented by a house or a neighborhood. Now, in House of Sand and Fog (DreamWorks), based on a 1999 novel by Andre Dubus III, that theme becomes the catalyst of a florid tragedy. It’s a distinctly American tragedy, too, in which a Californian’s self-indulgent sense of entitlement smashes up against the ferocious pride of a struggling immigrant—with neither emerging the hero or the villain. The film, directed by Vadim Perelman from a script he wrote with Shawn Otto, is an alarmingly resonant piece of work, and there is much in it to brood on. It’s also one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve had at a film in ages. There wasn’t a minute I didn’t think of bolting.
Although told in a minor key, the first act gets your blood boiling. A depressed young woman, Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), abandoned nine months earlier by her husband, awakens in her Northern California coastal house to find sheriff’s deputies nailing an eviction notice to her door—just above her piles of unopened mail. Apparently she owed some back business taxes (for a business she doesn’t have), but rather than dealing with the county’s mistake, she let it slide.
Nearby, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Col. Behrani (Ben Kingsley) circles a notice of the property for sale in the newspaper. Once an esteemed military aide to the Shah of Iran, Behrani now leads a semifictional existence, posing as a Boeing executive for friends and potential in-laws (he is trying to marry his daughter into a well-off family) yet working in a demeaning (for him) construction job. Every day he leaves home in a business suit and changes into blue-collar duds at a nearby hotel; every day, he is questioned by a security man when he returns to that hotel to change back into his immaculately tailored business uniform. He does not bear these insults with equanimity.
The contrast between the two protagonists could not be more stark. Behrani keeps track of every penny he spends in a ledger book while Kathy has been disastrously inattentive to her financial status. Behrani is disciplined, with an eye to the future (i.e., reclaiming his past), while Kathy has wallowed in the present, indulging her depression to the point of homelessness. Behrani dreams of a day, years earlier, on the Caspian Sea when his family frolicked on a beach and sees his new property (which he can sell at four times the price he paid) as a way to regain stature in the eyes of his elegant wife, Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo), plainly out of her element in this new culture. Kathy inherited the house from her father (who worked hard to pay off its mortgage for 30 years) but has been, until now, indifferent to its value.
I think it’s safe to say that from the start most of us are on the side of the young woman: There is something about the horror of an undeserved eviction that trumps Behrani’s aspirations, however recognizably human. And she is a good deal prettier than he is. But in the first half of the film, we don’t like either character too much. Kathy is heavy-spirited, mulish, and helpless in a way that earns her (as opposed to her plight) little sympathy. Behrani is cold, violent with his wife (when he fails to please her), and unmoved by the injustice done to Kathy, from which he has benefited. There is another major character: Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), who is moved by Kathy (as well as by her blue eyes and long legs)—moved enough to leave his wife and kids and to go up against Behrani in the role of vigilante equalizer.
That Kathy needs a vigilante is one of the trumped-up aspects of this story. Although she does have a lawyer (Frances Fisher), the woman is low-rent, stridently left-wing, and not especially effective in getting the county to house Kathy as efficiently as it sent her into the cold. And that’s it, folks, for authority figures. After the opening eviction, there are no county or bank officials to be seen in House of Sand and Fog—no sense of anyone but her vigilante lover-boy on this woman’s poor side. The action unfolds in a political and social vacuum in which the state taketh away but cannot restoreth.
That’s not to suggest that this is a straight-ahead vigilante movie. Like In the Bedroom (2001), based on a short story by Dubus’ father, House of Sand and Fog makes vigilantism seem both inevitable and horrific. It engages your hatred, your anger, and your lust for vigilante vengeance. Then it shows the tragic consequences of that vengeance when the people are neither entirely good nor entirely bad, and when the vigilante is (as any vigilante in the real world will be) unstable and non-omniscient.
As I said, it’s a compelling scenario—even more twisted in its psychological architecture than the similarly anti-vigilante Mystic River. And Kingsley, Connelly, Eldard, and Aghdashloo give vivid and courageous performances. But the machinations of tragedy and farce are quite similar, and in a bad tragedy, they can merge: A universe in which everyone is in the wrong place at the wrong time can seem more laughable than its idealized opposite. As the stakes are ratcheted up, House of Sand and Fog becomes ludicrously grim. Perelman and Otto have added some sentimental twists to Dubus’ climax: Now these people acknowledge one another’s humanity and even take steps to ward off the inexorable tragedy. But the injection of empathy makes the nightmarish finale more, not less, absurd. This is a movie that sends you out shuddering, chuckling nervously, wanting to tell the people in line for the next show, “It’s the feel-bad movie of the year!”