Early in House of Sand and Fog, there's a quietly effective moment. Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), a troubled young woman, drives by night to the family home she lost through sheer carelessness. Someone else has bought it, and she doesn't know what to do. So she turns the heat on and falls asleep on the big front seat of her beater car. Indoors, the softly humming engine just ruffles the sleep of Col. Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), the strong-willed Iranian immigrant for whom the house is an investment property and a step to a better life.
Thus does director Vadim Perelman express the adversarial yet oddly spiritual relationship between Kathy and Behrani. They have yet to meet, but their first connection is this engine sound, a comfort to one and an annoyance to the other.
The film, based on the 1999 novel by Andre Dubus III, is a qualified success, better at setup than resolution. Behrani, once a wealthy intimate of the Shah, fled Iran after the 1979 revolution; he now works menial jobs that somehow support a plush lifestyle for his coddled wife, teen-age son and just-married daughter. Kathy is a recovering alcoholic whose friendship with a sympathetic cop named Lester Burden (Ron Eldard) leads her from legal to extra-legal channels to regain what she's lost.
As drama, House of Sand and Fog's strong points include both how it frames its characters' options -- everyone is driven by feelings of righteousness -- and how those characters develop. Perelman skillfully reveals new sides of each, taking us from pity or sympathy to understanding -- and, in one case, to revulsion.
Conversely, the film tends to subsume resolution of its more interesting aspects in the inevitable climactic tragedy (onto which it then piles a second tragedy). The James Horner score is maudlin and overpowering, and the plot is pocked with logic-defying gaffes: Would an ex-military officer leave a loaded gun on his kitchen table?
The film works best as an allegory about American privilege as expressed through attitudes toward newcomers, and symbolized by Kathy's inherited house. "Americans do not deserve what they have," says Behrani, who nonetheless winds up wandering his own newly purchased home like a stranger -- and being imprisoned in it by Burden, whose resentment and skullduggery are fueled by racism.
But even in this reading the film can be maddeningly ambiguous. Viewers, for instance, might wonder whether Behrani, as a high-level cohort of the U.S.-backed Shah, ever benefited from American string-pulling -- something that would certainly add a layer of irony, but which the script doesn't address.
Still, House remains quite watchable, thanks especially to Kingsley, who gives a powerful performance that helps us at least begin to plumb Behrani's unfathomable final choice.