House of Sand and Fog
Produced and distributed by DreamWorks
Directed by Vadim Perelman
Screenplay by Vadim Perelman and Shawn Lawrence Otto from the novel by Andre Dubus III

As Heraclitus concluded so has Andre Dubus III: Character is fate.  By way of illustration, in 1999, Dubus gave us his hypnotic novel House of Sand and Fog, the story of three very different characters weaving together their individual fates to disastrous effect.  Reading this narrative is like being transfixed by a hissing cobra.  You know the deadly strike is coming, but you dare not avert your eyes, even for an instant.

I am in debt to first-time feature director Vadim Perelman for translating this novel to the screen.  Had he not, I might never have read it.  Its cover bears a seal identifying it as an Oprah’s Book Club selection, a testimonial that usually works on me as a cordon sanitaire.  My one regret is that I read the novel just before seeing the film.  Doing so threw Perelman’s exceptional movie into partial eclipse, for, as good as it is, it cannot compete with the spell cast by the text.  Perelman has not found a fully satisfactory cinematic equivalent to Dubus’ use of alternating points of view.  The book brings us inside its characters’ minds by having two of the principals relate in their own voices what they are experiencing as they push each other ever closer to the edge of a moral precipice.  Their opposing perspectives intensify the narrative’s conflict immeasurably.

Both novel and film aspire to the condition of classic tragedy, but with this difference: Dubus gathered his materials not from the precincts of the highest and mightiest but from the experiences of fairly ordinary people caught up in the muddle of American life today.  Two pieces of information clicked together for him.  One was a news report about a 70-year-old woman who lost her house to county officials for allegedly not paying her taxes.  The other came from an acquaintance, a former officer in the Iranian military who had fled to America after the 1979 revolution and had to settle for a financially straightened existence.  His imagination thus sparked, Dubus transformed the 70-year-old into the 36-year-old Kathy La-zaro (Jennifer Connelly), a recovering alcohol and cocaine addict whose reckless inattention to her responsibilities results in the loss of the beachside bungalow her father left her.  When her husband leaves her, she becomes so despondent that she ignores county notices regarding overdue taxes that she has been assessed in error.  One morning, the sheriff shows up and evicts her.  In short order, her home is sold at auction to an Iranian émigré down on his luck in his adoptive country.  Middle-aged Col. Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), late of the shah’s air force, has been living well beyond his means in San Francisco on the dwindling funds he managed to take with him when he hastily fled his country.  Unable to find work in the aerospace industry, he is reduced to holding two minimum-wage jobs.  By day, he serves in the state highway’s litter patrol; by night, he is a convenience-store clerk.  Knowing nothing of Kathy or her woes, he buys her house as an investment property, hoping to recoup his family’s fortunes.  At first, his purchase seems like the American dream.  Expecting to double his money, he is amazed to discover that the bungalow can command nearly four times the $45,000 that he paid for it.  There is just one problem: Kathy.  She hires a lawyer to inform the colonel that the house was auctioned in error and should be returned to her, its rightful owner.  The colonel is incensed at first, concluding that he has been made a victim of bureaucratic incompetence, prejudicial injustice, or both.  Then he hits upon a simple solution.  Through Kathy’s lawyer, he notifies the county that he is willing to surrender the house for its market value—$170,000.  When the county balks at his proposal, he puts out a for-sale sign, and prospective buyers begin flocking to him.

As in Sophocles’ Antigone, the conflict is not between right and wrong.  Far more incendiary, it is between right and right.  Kathy’s claim on her property is indisputable.  But the colonel also has justice on his side.  In purchasing the bungalow, he has put his money at risk and absorbed the costs of moving his wife and son into the new residence in order to escape the punishing $3,000-per-month rent he had been paying at the upscale, largely Iranian-occupied apartment house in which his wife had insisted they live.  Furthermore, he has started renovations.  Not surprisingly, he feels entitled to a fair profit.  A rational solution is at hand, if only he and Kathy could step back and take the time necessary to assess their respective positions.  Neither has much time to spare, however.  Without savings, Kathy has nowhere to stay but motels, which she cannot afford.  For his part, the colonel has quit his jobs and staked what remains of his resources on realizing a profit from selling the house so that he can buy a business.  Having suffered brutal dispossession himself, courtesy of Ayatollah Khomeni, he cannot afford to sympathize with Kathy’s predicament.  When she shows up on his doorstep imploring him to do the right thing, he assures her that it is none of his business and that she should instead take the matter up with the county tax-assessor’s office.  He assumes that, one way or another, she will gain satisfaction and, more than likely, profit substantially by suing the government.  His position seems reasonable, if a touch cold.  Given Kathy’s willfulness, however, it turns out to be a grave miscalculation.  Although her legal-aid lawyer instructs her to stay away from the house and to let official proceedings go forward, Kathy is incapable of such patience.  She returns repeatedly—first peacefully, then disruptively.  Loudly and publicly, she accuses the colonel of stealing her home, short-circuiting his chances of making a quick sale.  To up the ante, Kathy has enlisted the extralegal assistance of Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), who could not help noticing her body as he oversaw her eviction.  Quicker than you can utter “film noir,” Kathy pulls this lummox between her motel bedsheets, pretending to herself that she’s merely surrendering to passion rather than working her wiles.  Connelly handles this aspect of Kathy’s benighted character skillfully, her eyes darting away from Burdon even as she seduces him.  Of course, this lack of self-awareness typifies her general lack of moral scrutiny.  She has never been one to look very far ahead, and this renders her incapable of facing the specter of consequences squarely.  To add further to her almost deliberate blindness, she starts drinking again.  Sharing a bottle of wine with Burdon, Connelly exchanges cheers, looking not at her suitor but at her raised glass.  We are not surprised when she fails to notice that, for a would-be savior, Burdon is about the worst choice she could make.  He is as foolhardy as she is.  After a couple of mattress wallows with Kathy, he dumps his wife and two kids to take up full-time duty as her white knight.  He then goes after the colonel, assuming that he is nothing but a greedy “wog.”  To his discomfit, he discovers instead a man of character and determination who is quite ready to stand up to intimidation, especially on behalf of his wife and children.  From this point, the plot fairly hurtles toward its preordained conclusion.  I say preordained because this narrative is founded not on suspense but on character—or, in the cases of Kathy and Burdon, lack thereof.

From youth, Kathy has been a spoiled, wanton hedonist who despised her parents for their baffled attempts to rescue her.  Now an adult, she has become so disgusted with her lack of self-control that she courts self-destruction whenever things go wrong.  Burdon, who has never recovered from the trauma of witnessing his father leave his mother when he was 12, is a self-deluded hero manque.  He entered law enforcement to save people, most especially women in distress.  He is too dim to realize how his personal obsession distorts his on-the-job thinking.  More astonishingly, he fails to see that he is repeating his father’s dereliction, preferring instead to rationalize his abandonment of his wife.  One day into their squalid affair, he confides to Kathy that, although he still respects his wife, their relationship has lost its passion, the all-American excuse for abandoning one’s spouse.

Kathy and Burdon are prototypical examples of shallow, self-absorbed Americans, the kind that shock the colonel’s moral sense.  A man of exquisite orderliness, the colonel cannot fathom how so many Americans have been permitted to become such irresponsible slouches.  While still in Iran, his position brought him into contact with American military men and Boeing executives whom he respected.  He assumed America was populated with people equally disciplined and dedicated.  Instead, he finds a population of overfed, undisciplined slobs and concludes, all too tellingly, “These people do not deserve what they have.  It is no longer to me a surprise that it is the recent immigrants who excel in this land, the Orientals, the Greeks, and yes, the Persians.  We know rich opportunity when we see it.”  As he tells his son, Americans “have the eyes of small children, always looking for the next distraction.”

The colonel’s judgment of such Americans as Kathy and Burdon reveals, however, a certain moral blindness in himself.  In Iran, he had come into contact with members of SAVAK, the shah’s notoriously vicious secret police.  He knew of their methods, but he assuaged his conscience, telling himself that, after all, he never directly aided their operations.  Still, he knows that he and his class lived luxuriously at the expense of Iran’s common people, who were cowed into submission by the ever-present threat of torture and summary execution.  And now, in America, he finds himself once again prospering at the expense of another’s misery.  While he wishes it were otherwise, he convinces himself that he cannot turn away from his opportunity, that to do so would harm his family unconscionably.  As in Iran, he smooths over the injustice with the salve of personal necessity.

The film’s performances are, from top to bottom, superlative.  In his every gesture, Ben Kingsley makes us understand why the colonel has become so hardened and remorseless.  This is a proud man who refuses to be broken by misfortune.  He is determined to show the world a resolute, untroubled face.  Even though his work is menial, he leaves his house daily at dawn, his back straight in a freshly pressed suit, his carriage lithe and commanding.  He cannot risk having the wealthy Iranian community learn of his falling fortunes for fear that his daughter might not be able to make a good match.  Only with his wife and children does he allow his tenderness to come through.  Kingsley’s wonderfully expressive eyes convey the character’s profound love and concern for them.  Whatever his shortcomings, you cannot help admiring this fellow.  He may be in a strange land, but his poise, posture, and measured movements all speak of a brave man who knows precisely the geography of his commitments.  Jennifer Connelly fully registers Kathy Lazaro’s lost soul.  Despite her last name, she has not been able to return from the American death of wanton indulgence.  You can see it in her gaze, which is forever wavering with confusion and self-doubt.  She is submissive one moment, shrill the next, and balanced never.  As Burdon, Eldard completes the bitter triangle with a convincing portrayal of an American boy-man incapable of true moral discernment and wholly unready to deal with someone thus equipped.

And so it is that, in multicultural, class-divided America, the 2,500-year-old words of Heraclitus still provide the common denominator: Character is indeed fate.