House of Sand and Fog. Dreamworks presents a film directed by Vadim Perelman. Written by Perelman and Shawn Lawrence Otto. Running time: 126 minutes. Rated R (for some violence/disturbing images, language and a scene of sexuality). Starring Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly, Ron Eldard, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jonathan Ahdout, Frances Fisher.

House of Sand and Fog

House of Sand and Fog doesn't take sides and it doesn't pull punches. It takes two realistic, sympathetic people and puts them on opposing side of a dispute that neither of them caused. There's rarely a moment in the film that we don't see both sides of the conflict; there's never a moment that we feel either side is completely right or wrong. The end is one of the grimmest of the year, but such a finale is inevitable. Anything less would be cheating.

Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) is a recovering drug addict, living alone in her father's house, the only thing she has left. When the county comes knocking at her door, Kathy's house is reposessed for unpaid taxes that she never owed. Kathy ignored the notification letters, and now she is forced to resort to legal action to get her house back. But before Kathy gets a chance to take action, her house has been put up for auction.

Enter Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley). A high-ranking colonel for the Shah in his native Iran, Behrani, along with his wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and son (Jonathan Ahdout), was forced to flee for America when the Shah was deposed. Behrani purchases Kathy's home at a fraction of its worth, in an attempt to sell it back at a profit. When the county catches their mistake, and offers to buy the house back from Behrani for the price he paid, he refuses, demanding market value. Kathy finds comfort in local police officer Lester Burton (Ron Eldard), who leaves his wife for her, and uses intimidation to try to force Behrani to sell.

Of course, neither Kathy nor Behrani has done anything wrong. Both have a legal claim to the house, and neither have any reason to give in to the other. Kathy refuses to accept her loss. In her eyes, Behrani is a thief. "You stole this house from me," she says to his face. "This is a stolen house." Behrani views Kathy as an irresponisble woman who was punished for not following the law. Both misunderstand the other's position, and both refuse to attempt to see it from the other's perspective.

Which is what makes House of Sand and Fog so compelling. Kathy and Behrani are fully formed individuals with the same complex emotions and feelings anyone would have in their situation. Both have our sympathies, but neither have our support, either. We sympathize with Kathy, but she should've opened her mail. We understand Behrani's refusal to sell, and we feel for his predicament, but he is being a bit greedy and stubborn. When an inevitable event drives the two together as allies of a sort, it is believable and makes the impending tragedy all the more heartbreaking.

Jennifer Connelly, after winning an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, stands a chance at another nomination here. And she deserves one. She never goes into histrionic emotional displays, and instead shows Kathy's inner turmoil, which is harder than over-the-top displays, anyhow. But as good as Connelly is, Sir Ben Kinglsey overshadows her with his mesmerizing performance. His Behrani is a man of great pride and honor. When tragedy strikes, Kingsley gives a display of anguish more wrenching than even Sean Penn's work in Mystic River.

The supporting cast is also superlative. Ron Eldard is believable in an unlikeable role. Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo gives a lovely performance as Behrani's wife, who tries to mediate the conflict. Jonathan Ahdout is making his feature film debut.

House of Sand and Fog is not likely to have financial success, because films this grim don't generally succeed comercially. But there have been few movies released this year (or in recent years) that are this evenhanded or heartbreaking. It may not be a film I'm likely to see again soon, but it's also not one I'm likely to forget.

© 2003 Matt Noller