Massoud Amir Behrani, the proud, honest Iranian immigrant played by Ben Kingsley in “House of Sand and Fog,” is the sort of person the American Dream was designed for. As a colonel in pre-Ayatollah Iran, he once had several large trees torn down because they blocked the view of the ocean from his bungalow. Now, he finds America to be particularly suited to his lifestyle, because in America, you’re supposed to be able to get whatever you want. That’s the American Dream, after all.
“House of Sand and Fog,” a particularly distinguished debut from first-time director Vadim Perelman, based on Andre Dubus III’s Oprah-approved novel, is about the dissolution of the American Dream, the one that calls for little houses with white picket fences and two-parent families and a steady 9-to-5 job. Behrani has been living in a small apartment with his wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and teenage son Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout) while he works two jobs, days on a road crew and nights at a convenience store. Having married off his older daughter, he now spends the remainder of his savings on a house, purchased at a government auction for far below the market value. He can fix it up a bit and resell it for four times what he paid and buy a REALLY nice place.
The house in question, however, belonged to Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), whose husband left her eight months ago (a fact she has not yet revealed to anyone) and who has spent most of her time in bed, depressed, since then. She never bothered with her mail, where she would have found letters from the county, threatening to evict her if she did not pay back taxes on the house. Sure enough, she has now been evicted, and her home immediately sold to Behrani. The county turns out to have been in error — Kathy never owed any taxes — but Behrani refuses to sell the house back for anything less than market value. Legally, he is in the right. Ethically, the issue is more complicated.
Though she doesn’t articulate it, Kathy needs the house because it is the last vestige of security in her shattered life. Behrani needs it temporarily as a home for his family — first thing he does is have a deck installed on the roof to give it an ocean view — but more permanently as a sign that he is now truly an American — for what is more American than buying something cheap and reselling it for a profit?
It is a battle of wills, then, with Kathy’s emotional outbursts and irrational behavior — aided by Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), a shady sheriff’s deputy she befriends — pitted against Behrani’s deliberate stubbornness.
Connelly brings tremendous spirit and sadness to the role of Kathy, an utter mess of a woman whose primary method of coping is denial, but whom Connelly makes sympathetic. There is a scene in which she calls her brother for help and is told he doesn’t have time. He doesn’t realize how dire the situation is; she is starting to realize it but doesn’t dare admit it to herself. She cries. It is utterly heartbreaking.
Then we have Shohreh Aghdashloo, an Iranian actress who, like the Behranis, fled Iran when the Ayatollah came into power. I didn’t know that when I watched the film, but knowing it now adds depth to her already fantastic performance. Nadi barely speaks English and is terrified at the thought of being forced back to Iran. Her love for her family and her resilience in crisis become the film’s strong but subtle undercurrent.
And then there is Ben Kingsley, who has an Oscar win and two nominations under his belt already and who deserves at least a nomination for his performance here. His work in “House of Sand and Fog” is careful, measured and powerful. One senses that Kingsley is at all times in complete control of every aspect of his appearance and voice, playing each note exactly as it ought to be played as he brings to life a determined, dignified man who has been pushed to the breaking point.
The human drama captured in this film is some of the most poignant and insightful of the year, up until the final reel, when some of the plot machinations begin to feel like, well, machinations. Still, even in improbable situations, these characters feel like real people, like people we know. Their emotions and attitudes are familiar. We can, and do, weep with them.
A- (2 hrs., 6 min.; )