Movie Review: 'House of Sand and Fog'

by Steven Clark

29 May 2004

"House of Sand and Fog" is about two elements: the stability of sand, and the transparency of fog. This symbolizes a house that becomes a struggle for the identity of two people.

Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) is all too American; a recovering drug addict recently dumped by her husband and trying to put her life together. All she has left is the house left to her by her father. Not having answered her mail for several months due to the mental fog she is in, Kathy is surprised when she is evicted by the county for nonpayment of taxes that she doesn't owe. Before she can go to court to get her house back, it is sold to Massoud Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an Iranian immigrant, and the war is on.

Behrani was a colonel in the Shah's air force. Despite working at a construction site and convenience store, he still insists on going home in a jacket and tie, driving his aging Mercedes. He is determined to raise himself and pay for his son's college education by re-selling the house at market value. In this way, he gets a share of the American Dream at Kathy's expense. What to Behrani is a simple matter of property transaction becomes a case of Blut Und Boden to Kathy. She has lost all that matters to her, and is reduced to skipping out on her motel bill and sleeping in her car.

Kathy angrily challenges Behrani, but fails every time. She comes to his house to chew him out and gets injured. She tries to commit suicide in the driveway and breaks down, having to be comforted by Behrani's family, especially his wife, who is uneasy about buying the house. it reminds her of Behrani's summer home in Iran. Kathy is like a wounded bird that needs the cat to keep her from falling apart.

In the middle of this comes Lester (Ron Eldard), the deputy who evicted Kathy. He is sympathetic to her plight and also sees her as a way to escape his loveless marriage. In true American fashion he'll help Kathy, be a better man for so doing, make a new life with her in her house. "The wheels are set in motion," he quietly reassures her in what becomes the most ominous line in the movie. Lester clumsily tries to strongarm Behrani into selling the house to Kathy with increasingly disasterous and, in the end, tragic results. Lester moves Kathy into a friend's cabin, and film noir-like entanglements begin as lester's simple desire for a new life with Kathy intrudes upon a struggle between two people who are unable to back off from what each wants the most from life: one, financial security; and the other, a home.

These are the forces that propel "House of Sand and Fog" into a strong film that has powerful characterizations and a thoughtful comment on where America is going.

The movie is directed by Vladimir Perelman, a good effort that is a faithful version of Andre Dubus III's novel, and the performances by Connelly and Kingsley are superb. Both characters are portrayed in a balanced manner, and our loyalties to them shift back and forth.

Certainly I thought the issue of disposession timely for us. The world of the film is an uncomfortable view of what America is becoming: a native class losing its security of home and country, with foreigners like Behrani seeming more American then many of us with their values of hard work and middle-class propriety, but in the end having irreconcilable differences with this country.

Although Lester seems off-putting and too naive at first, I got to see in him a depiction of a certain kind of American, the one who wants to "do good," even if it means planting evidence on drug dealers or using his gun to coerce Behrani into signing the house over to Kathy. I see his character countless times in American soldiers in Iraq who are there to "help," but only wind up being the muscle for the New World order crowd. He wouldn't be out of place at Waco, ready to stop "terrorism" or "bigotry." His decency and kindness conceal a kind of madness.

This movie has no easy answers. It has changing emotions, and pricks the undercurrent of our hopes and wants, and makes us want to reach out to the Kathys of America when she and Americans like her are disposessed en masse and want solutions. A film with tough scenes and a bleak picture of what is. See it.


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