Position and possession. These are the two elements that fatefully combine in House of Sand and Fog to set a tragedy in motion. And it is a genuine tragedy, a case not of good versus bad, but of good versus good: two strangers become locked in a furious battle of wills, both have right on their side, and neither can give way to the other. It unfolds with an agonising momentum, for at every stage one can see how catastrophe could have been averted by common sense. Unfortunately, as someone once wrote, common sense ain't so common any more.
Adapted from the novel by Andre Dubus III, it concerns the ownership of a modest clapboard house overlooking the North Californian coast. This is home to Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), a troubled young woman who is recovering from addiction and a divorce, but hasn't been opening her mail for a while. An erroneous tax demand goes unnoticed, her house is wrongly offered for auction, and is immediately snapped up at a bargain price. The buyer is Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an Iranian immigrant who was a colonel in the Shah's air force and now, in exile, does menial jobs with a road-construction gang and works as on the night shift in a convenience store. But pride won't allow him to drop the illusion of status: in a telling sequence, he steals into a hotel bathroom, changes from his work clothes into an immaculate grey suit, and then drives home to his wife and son in his Mercedes. It's a double life, maintained at some cost.
Getting this house means a great deal to Behrani. Not only does its prospect remind him of a house he once owned on the Caspian Sea, it will enable him to make a profit on resale and pay for his son through college. It's his leg-up to the American Dream. Kathy, meanwhile, has just woken up to the fact that the house, which she inherited from her late father, has been taken away from her. We sympathise with her outrage: the city bureaucracy has left her dangling, and now she sees a family of foreigners installed in what was recently her home. All she can hope is that Behrani will take pity and sell the house back to her, but everything about Kingsley's characterisation - his stern military posture, his control-freak domination of his wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) - indicates that he is not a man to bend. Kingsley slips into this performance as precisely as he does that grey suit, ingeniously switching between the chauvinist front that Behrani has constructed about himself, and the private, thoughtful man within. He is good at the slow-burn of feeling, which is why his volcanic turn as the cockney gangster in Sexy Beast seemed misjudged; his authority lies in stealth, not screaming fits.
So, an impasse is reached. Both people need this house, and both have a claim to it. What we can't foresee is the vortex of calamity into which both will be sucked. The director Vadim Perelman, making his feature debut, works in such a discreet, tactful way that we seem to be caught up in the fate of these characters before we even know it. The stakes are raised alarmingly when Kathy, vulnerable and lonely, allows herself to be helped by the deputy sheriff, Lester (Ron Eldard), a hot-headed fellow who tries to intimidate Behrani and his family with talk of "immigration". This is perhaps where the director's own émigré background came into play.
Born in Kiev, Perelman lived hand-to-mouth as a teenager before he and his mother eventually found asylum in Canada. The argument running through the movie is that America, while fabled as the land of opportunity, is also riven with fear of dispossession and exclusion; both Behrani and Kathy have felt, in different ways, the pain of separation, which is why they cling to the house as desperately as the shipwrecked to driftwood.
The story's fatalistic movement recalls In the Bedroom, another tragedy that exposes a faultline in the American judicial system and its devastating impact on individual lives. The two films have, what is more, a familial link, one being based on a novel by Andre Dubus III, the other on a short story by his father. (They may soon merit their own coinage: "Dubusian"). House of Sand and Fog is the more troubling of the two, because it refuses to take sides, and tortures us instead with a vista of "if onlys". If only Kathy had been more diligent about reading her mail. If only Behrani had not been so proud and intransigent. If only the policeman had not taken on the role of Kathy's knight in shining armour.
But then, who wouldn't want to rescue Jennifer Connelly from distress? Her performance, in its swings between indignation and disbelief, could have been hysterical, but instead achieves a quiet and terrible despair. The final scene, reprised from the beginning of the movie, has her contemplating the question, "Is this your house?", and it is Perelman's great accomplishment that we await her reply in a state of acute moral tension.
Not everything in the film works, however. James Horner's score presses the pathos rather too obviously, and it might be the blue-chip quality of Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly that makes Ron Eldard look somewhat lightweight in the cop role.
But these are negligible shortcomings. House of Sand and Fog has a sombre compulsion to its storytelling, and addresses its very American themes of status, family and ownership with a heart-squeezing conviction.