When Californian Kathy Nicolo's house is seized for non-payment of taxes, Iranian immigrant Massoud Behrani buys it at auction, staking everything he has on his family's future in their new country. Kathy's desperation to reclaim her home and the cultural misunderstandings between the antagonists escalate into hostilities.
This slow-burning adaptation of Andre Dubus III's bestselling novel of pride and prejudice, possession and obsession, is initially intriguing and laden with dread. Connelly's Kathy is preposterously lovely for such a loser, but from the moment we hear she's being evicted because she hasn't opened her mail for months - indeed, she appears not to have been out of bed for months - it's clear she's not firing on all cylinders.
While she's sleeping in her car and wandering barefoot (with suspiciously pedicured tootsies) swigging from liquor bottles, our hearts go out instead to Kingsley's Behrani, a former colonel in Iran who maintains a facade of prosperity and authority while labouring on a road construction crew. There is a riveting scene in which he enters a smart building filthy in his work clothes, escapes the hostile doorman, washes in the men's room and emerges, unrecognised, imperious in an elegant suit.
When he sees that this house with a view of the Pacific Ocean is being auctioned, Behrani wants it because he is haunted by memories of his lost bungalow on the Caspian Sea. He can also fix it up, re-sell it, move onwards and upwards, and see his son through college. It's the American Dream.
He and his family (quite beautifully played by Shohreh Aghdashloo and Jonathon Ahdout) move in and are happy. Meanwhile, however, Kathy's argument that her eviction was a bureaucratic error seems to have some merit, but the two parties fail to communicate. After Kathy is taken up by a local deputy of little brain (Ron Eldard) who doesn't like foreigners, the feud turns furious and ever more ominous.
Perelman is intent on politicising the scenario. The Americans are largely appalling, the immigrants vulnerable and sensitive. But he's also intent on Connelly's legs and buttocks, giving her side of the story the look of a tawdry melodrama. Repetitive, portentous shots of fog enveloping the Golden Gate Bridge start getting silly, too - particularly since the house in dispute isn't in San Francisco.
The writer-director, a Ukrainian immigrant making his move from a career in commercials, makes his boldest stroke with a couple of shocking fits of violence and misogyny from Behrani that complicate our feelings towards him. There's a desperately inevitable, powerfully tragic last reel, but getting there is absolute torture.
Demanding, provoking and painfully slow. The single most compelling reason for seeing it is the magnificent performance from Kingsley, who deserves every prize on the books.