"House of Sand and Fog" is like a human chemistry experiment, a drama that documents the explosive mixture of pride and desperation.
Jennifer Connelly plays Kathy Nicolo, a down-on-her-luck cleaning woman and former drug addict and alcoholic who's been languishing in a stupor since her husband left her. The plates and garbage pile up. So does the mail - including loads of unopened letters warning her that her small home will be auctioned if she doesn't pay a $500 business tax.
Kathy is evicted, and a pleasant, handsome sheriff's deputy named Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard, of "Ghost Ship" and "Black Hawk Down") shows her to the curb. They strike up an unlikely friendship that grows into an affair, for Lester confesses he no longer loves his wife.
This is where Massoud Amir Behrani comes in. Ben Kingsley plays the stern former Iranian Air Force colonel, who worked under the shah and escaped the ayatollah's revolution, bringing his wife, son and daughter to America with a couple hundred thousand dollars.
Behrani has watched those savings steadily erode as he and his wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) spent lavishly on an upscale apartment and furnishings to maintain their upper-class status among strangers.
When he discovers a small bungalow for auction, Behrani sees a chance to invest their remaining savings in real estate and leave his current jobs as a convenience store clerk by night and road-crew laborer by day.
What he doesn't bargain on is Kathy, and she doesn't expect him either. Soon the county is willing to refund Behrani's money if he will return the house to her, but he learns the home is worth four times what he paid for it and isn't about to let the investment slip away.
Kingsley plays the colonel as a man of cold discipline who cannot accept as an excuse the woes and laziness that led to Kathy's eviction. This was her mistake, or maybe it was the county's mistake, but it was not HIS mistake.
Meanwhile, Kathy is fueling her side of the conflict with her own degree of pride. The home belonged to her late father and we get the sense at one point that what most worries her is "the 18th," the date when her mother and some friends are planning to visit. She wants the house back by then to spare herself the humiliation of explaining the situation to her mom.
Instead of letting due-process play out, she and Lester decide to confront the new occupants, and the inevitable series of showdowns with Behrani turn ugly, then violent and ultimately tragic.
The movie drags at some points as the plot is established, but the scenes between the Oscar winners Kingsley and Connelly evoke loathing and compassion for both sides. Even in scenes where they are just whispering to each other, it's like witnessing a real argument and being torn between fascination and embarrassment at the spectacle.
Eldard is a little less successful, playing Lester with too much wooden resolve and not enough fire, while Aghdashloo and Jonathan Ahdout are convincing and heartbreaking as the colonel's wife and son, who are dragged into the conflict.
First-time feature director Vadim Perelman and co-screenwriter Shawn Lawrence Otto do an impressive job of adapting Andre Dubus III's Oprah-endorsed novel, and making this story of small-time failed humanity seem epic in scale, a metaphor for any conflict - global or personal - in which both sides should compromise, but choose to destroy each other instead.
"House of Sand and Fog," a DreamWorks release, is rated R for violence/disturbing images, language and a scene of sexuality. Running time: 126 minutes. Three stars out of four.