Mystic River, Cold Mountain, House of Sand and Fog -- you can practically hear Mother Nature stirring up trouble in the titles of these recent releases. All three reach for tragic grandeur, their characters dutifully marching toward their inexorable fates. But in my opinion, only House of Sand and Fog, which involves a petty real estate dispute in northern California, provides catharsis -- the emotional cleansing that Aristotle thought was the whole purpose of tragedy. I'm not sure why it happens this time, maybe because Jennifer Connelly is so damn beautiful. Then again, Nicole Kidman is pretty damn beautiful, and it didn't happen in Cold Mountain -- not to me, anyway. Mystic River? There, everything was so locked in, so inevitable; the characters didn't have room to breathe. In House of Sand and Fog, they not only have room to breathe, they have room to squirm.
Connelly is Kathy, a recovering alcoholic who appears not to have left the house since her husband took off, several months ago. She also hasn't opened her mail, so when the police show up to evict her because she never got around to paying a tax she doesn't really owe -- it's all a misunderstanding -- she's suddenly homeless. And before she can do anything about it, the house has been bought and occupied by the family of Massoud Amir Behrani, a former colonel in the Iranian air force who emigrated to the United States when the Shah was deposed. A proud man, Massoud has literally been working overtime to keep up appearances; he has two menial jobs but changes into a suit in a hotel bathroom before returning home every day. Fate has played a mean trick on Massoud, and acquiring Kathy's house at a bargain-basement price is his first decent break in the Land of Opportunity.
It's a rather peculiar match-up: an American woman sliding down the ladder of success versus an Iranian American family grasping for the bottom rung. And at first I tried to read a deeper meaning into it -- something about the U.S. government's support for the Shah coming back to haunt us, perhaps. But the Behranis could just as easily be Korean American or Cuban American. The important point is that, having once lived a life of privilege, they're now reduced to fighting over scraps. And what's nice about House of Sand and Fog is that, as Kathy and the Behranis prepare for battle, neither side has our complete sympathy. Massoud is militarily rigid and casually racist; his wife is spoiled. And Kathy? She could have avoided this whole mess if she'd just opened her mail! But she didn't open her mail, sending an irresistible force hurtling toward an immovable object.
As the immovable object, Kingsley holds his body ramrod straight, shifting his head just the right amount to take in new data. The bearing is almost too military, but Kingsley manages to show us the loving husband and father inside the soldier. As the irresistible force, Connelly gives off a drowsy vibe, as if Kathy's dreaming the whole thing. But she also has moments of sad tenderness, especially in her scenes with Ron Eldard, playing a cop who falls in love with Kathy and tries, within and outside the law, to help her. Directed by Vadim Perelman from a novel by Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog sets this pair of losers on a collision course with the Behranis, and the resulting damage seems freakishly disproportionate to the acts that set everything in motion. But isn't that how it often is when tragedy strikes?