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‘House of Sand and Fog’ well acted and riveting

Kingsley and Connelly star in this nightmarish drama in which everything that can goes wrong. By John Hartl

A little property can be a dangerous thing. Especially when it’s accompanied by a touch of hubris, a clash of cultures and a misplaced sense of family pride.

That’s the theme of Vadim Perelman’s “House of Sand and Fog,” a nightmare drama in which everything that can go wrong eventually does. Atmospheric and intelligently cast, this worst-case-scenario movie suggests a bad dream that risks going too far. Realists may resist the spell it casts; others will be fascinated. 

Based on Andre Dubus III’s 1999 best-seller, Perelman and Shawn Otto’s script follows a luckless young house cleaner, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), who is evicted from her seaside California home by a surprisingly sympathetic deputy sheriff (Ron Eldard). When she hires a lawyer (Frances Fisher) to get it back, she’s informed that the county has already arranged an auction and sold the house.

The buyer is an Iranian immigrant, Colonel Behrani (Ben Kingsley), who was once pals with the Shah and now finds himself humiliated, working at less-than-satisfying jobs to make ends meet. When he acquires the house for a pittance, he is convinced that he is finally achieving something approaching the status he had in Iran.

He says goodbye to his fellow workers and prepares to sell the house at a considerable profit, thereby justifying himself in the eyes of his children and worried wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo). But the unhappily married cop and the newly single Kathy become involved with each other and obsessed with reclaiming the house. 

Performances win out over plot holesIf Kathy would just open her mail and pay her taxes, of course, there would be no book or movie. We have to believe that Kathy would be slovenly enough to ignore all warning signs before the evicting authorities arrive, and there’s not quite enough in the script to make that notion stick. Her father took 30 years to pay off the mortgage on the house, she grew up there, and Kathy’s pride in the place couldn’t be stronger. So why does she let it slip through her fingers? 

The performances consistently make up for such gaps. Connelly and Eldard project such fragility that the couple’s need for each other is always believable; so is the series of tragic, almost inevitable missteps they take. Even more interesting is the relationship between the hard-edged colonel and his seemingly less aggressive wife.

Aghdashloo, an Iranian actress, recently won the New York Film Critics’ prize for best supporting actress for this careful yet passionate performance. At first she seems timid and cowed by her husband, but once she realizes the seriousness of the situation, she roars back at him and all but takes charge.

Kingsley also finds great variety in his role, credibly switching gears as he moves from sexist tyrant to caring husband to horrified father. Perelman may be a first-time director, but he’s done a first-rate job with all his actors. They keep “House of Sand and Fog,” for all its plotty excesses, watchable and often riveting.

John Hartl is the film critic for