Two people, a house and shaky groundLike any tragedy, “House of Sand and Fog” marches its characters toward doom in clean, precise steps, most of which are freely chosen, but all of which come to seem inevitable. Hurtling toward a crash are two people with incompatible claims to the same thing. Driving both of them is the belief that it’s their last chance at something.
Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is a damaged, middle-class American woman, a recovering alcoholic abandoned by her husband and a continent away from her family ― so sunk in depression that when she opens her front door to admit the deputy who’s come to evict her, she has to push aside a heap of unopened mail.
One such unopened envelope (actually, several) is the reason the deputy is there. She’s being evicted, to her complete surprise, because the county is under the impression that she owes $500 in back taxes from her ex-husband’s business. Presumably she could have corrected this mistake early on, had she had the will to open her mail.
But by the time Kathy gets herself a lawyer, the county has sold the house, a modest bungalow with a view (from the roof) of the San Francisco Bay, at auction. The buyer is Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an Iranian immigrant with a wife, a teenage son, and a daughter.
Once a colonel in the Iranian military ― “before the ayatollahs sucked the blood out of our beautiful country,” as he tells the guests at his daughter’s wedding in the first scenes ―Behrani is a recently naturalized American citizen, and a person with the sort of fierce, proud control that comes from having experienced humiliation.
This former member of Iran’s ruling class is now spending his days spreading tar on highway construction sites, and his nights working behind a gas station cash register. His family lives in an apartment that’s no doubt modest by their previous standards, but which is nonetheless eating implacably through their savings. At the gas station, when Behrani eats a Snickers bar, he pulls out his private ledger and makes a precise note of the 35-cent debit against what’s left.
On the day he buys Kathy’s house at auction, Behrani comes home with flowers for his wife, and says: “God has kissed our eyes.” As is often the case at tax auctions, Behrani has gotten the house for a fraction of its market value. It’s because of this that Behrani, when contacted by Kathy’s lawyer about the mistake, refuses to sell the house back to the county for less than four times what he paid. His family’s salvation isn’t the house itself; it’s the opportunity to multiply their money, to get a substantial foothold in America and to forever quiet the fear that the ground is going to give way beneath them again. But the ground is giving way beneath Kathy’s feet, too.
This story unfolds in steps so modest and true, and its characters are so authentic ― thanks in great part to Connelly and, especially, Kingsley, two of the more effective film actors speaking English ― that you feel the urge to look away from whatever’s coming. Directed by a Ukraine-born Canadian named Vadim Perelman (a first-time director, amazingly), this is the work of people who know about the terror of life on the margins, and know that things there don’t often work out for the best.
House of Sand and Fog
Drama / English
by David Moll