“I didn’t come to America to work like an Arab!” says Behrani (Ben Kingsley). Behrani was a colonel back in his homeland on the Caspian Sea, but in America he’s reduced to paving roads and selling cigarettes behind the counter of a gas station. In an attempt to improve his family’s financial straits, he buys a bargain of a house. But Behrani’s fortune is another person’s heartache. Just days before, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) was wrongfully evicted from the house — the one her deceased father worked so hard to pay for.
Along with writer Shawn Lawrence Otto, Kiev-born director Vadim Perelman adapted Andre Dubus III’s novel to the screen in a language of fluid imagery, permeating the plot with morning mists, dense fogs, and burning sunsets on the sea. Perelman connects the two lives visually: as Kathy closes the door to her storage space, Behrani shuts his trunk; as she walks to her motel, he gets in the elevator to his apartment. Through Perelman’s House you’ll watch the seeds of racism take root on both sides of the same white picket fence. Kathy, now living in her car, watches Behrani put up new curtains in her house. Desperation causes fingers to point at obvious differences — like race — and the assumptions fly. Self-victimization gives birth to demonization until Kathy convinces herself that this Middle Eastern “son-of-a-bitch” stole her house from her. But as Behrani tells Kathy’s lawyer, “Things are not as they appear ...”
This is Perelman’s feature film directorial debut, and unfortunately his inexperience eventually shows. Somewhere along the way the film shifts from “powerful drama” to “eye-rolling melodrama.” One-way symbolism and an obvious framework pile up: repeated imagery of trees being chopped down, an ongoing sound track of gloomy piano playing and an ominous “this is heavy stuff” droning. By the end, you feel as if you’ve been hit over the head with a bloody dead dove, with someone screaming, “Tragedy! Tragedy! Tragedy!” in your sore ear. Once you’ve gotten the message, and see it repeatedly roll over on itself, the movie loses its grip on your concern.
Like the film as a whole, the characters flatten out in an emotional simplification — from three-dimensional people to frowning paper dolls — unworthy of its multifarious actors.
The House of Sand and Fog is a series of arrows all pointing in the same direction — down, down, down. Get ready to sink into a whirlpool of sorrow.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].