Earlier this year, Mike Figgis's underrated romp Cold Creek Manor proved that "property horror" thrillers are basically ghost stories without the ghosts - tales of housebuyers watching their dream homes turn to nightmares when the previous tenants refuse to move out. This week, the ominously entitled House of Sand and Fog goes even further, offering what is essentially Cold Creek Manor with A-levels. The acting is more "thespian" (Ben Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo have both received Oscar nods), the source material more celebrated (Andre Dubus III's bestselling novel was championed by Oprah, no less) and the overall effect more downbeat. Yet underneath it all, this is a nuts-and-bolts gothic melodrama dressed up as thoughtful art - no bad thing in itself, perhaps, but not a recipe for a fun night out.
Evocatively shot by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, House of Sand and Fog does credit to its first-time director, the commercials graduate Vadim Perelman. Under the surface, the film explores serious issues, most notably themes of displacement. Kingsley's Massoud Amir Behrani is a former Iranian colonel forced to take menial jobs in the US after fleeing his country, now desperately trying to buy his way back into the property market to secure a future for his wife and son. Meanwhile, Jennifer Connelly's ragged Kathy Nicolo is a recovering alcoholic, driven to homelessness by a bureaucratic error and now desperate to regain the house bequeathed to her by her sorely missed father. In the ensuing conflict, we find parallels with the traumas of international migration and occupation - made more profound by the fact that neither side is demonised or ridiculed. On the contrary, Perelman's characters have credible motives and keep their feet on the ground, even as the narrative spirals into melodramatic excess.
Less convincing is Ron Eldard's corrupt cop, who seems to have wandered in from another movie entirely (Unlawful Entry, perhaps?) and who reminds us that we've seen this story before in more trashy, and more mindlessly entertaining, attire. By the time the inevitably tragic denouement rolls around, we feel that we have indeed suffered for our art.
As an antidote to the housebound misery of House of Sand and Fog, you may be tempted to plump for the wide open vistas of The Missing, a revisionist western from the director Ron Howard, the former Happy Days star behind such feel-good gems as Splash and Apollo 13. Beware! Despite Howard's perky pedigree, what you get is the spectre of rape, infant death, child abduction and extreme dentistry, all delivered with just enough earnest grimness to make us wonder what the point of it all is. From the freezing cold opening, in which the frontier-rancher Cate Blanchett pulls an infected tooth from the gums of a snaggle-mouthed crone, to the action-packed finale in which bodies are battered with an assortment of axes, knives and big rocks, this puffed-up horse opera offers few laughs and much to make you wince. To his credit, Howard - whose last movie was the dewy-eyed A Beautiful Mind - soft-pedals the saccharine, despite the tireless efforts of the ubiquitous composer James Horner (who also scored Sand and Fog) to turn every scene into a Big Emotional Moment. Blanchett acquits herself admirably as the frosty mother on a mission to reclaim her kidnapped daughter, while the leather-faced Tommy Lee Jones weathers the usual storms as Cate's errant father, a white man passing for Indian whose nickname translates delightfully as "shit for luck".
Although adapted from Thomas Eidson's novel The Last Ride, The Missing owes its weightiest debt to John Ford's The Searchers, with the screenwriter Ken Kaufman (whose credits include the silly Space Cowboys and the even sillier Muppets From Space) applying the obligatory post-Dances With Wolves polish on the inter-racial politics. Thus, blame for the ongoing atrocities is liberally spread around, with the Indian kidnappers turning out to be renegades from an American army that butchered their settlements, and crucifixes teaming up with ancient magic to ward off cross-cultural demons during the film's more mystical diversions. The result is a film that is often too self-consciously right-on to be convincing, but one that is occasionally gripping and undeniably tense none the less. There's a very worrying moment early on, when Val "Rubbish" Kilmer turns up in cavalry attire looking like he's going to save the day. Mercifully, he gets sent off in the wrong direction and is never seen again. Presumably he's still out there, searching for the remains of his career.
House of Sand and Fog (15) and The Missing (15) are in cinemas now