House of Sand and Fog – Review

Film: House of Sand and Fog (2003)

Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jonathan Ahdout, Frances Fisher

Directed by: Vadim Perelman

Produced by: Vadim Perelman, Michael London

Written by: Vadim Perelman, Shawn Lawrence Otto (based on the novel by Andre Dubus III)

Music by: James Horner

Running Time: 126 minutes

Rating: R

WARNING: Spoilers abound!

I went back a few years and decided to watch House of Sand and Fog. I figured that with Jennifer Connelly and the always brilliant Ben Kingsley, I would get great acting at the very least. Much to my joy I got that and more.

Based on a 1999 novel by Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog is about a woman named Kathy Nicolo (Connelly) who — through errors made by her county — is evicted from her San Francisco-area home. While the county made a mistake, Kathy’s negligence of her mail due to her depressed, apathetic state (she is a recovering alcohol and drug addict who was recently abandoned by her husband) allowed the problem to develop.

Meanwhile, Iranian immigrant Massoud Amir Behrani (Kingsley), a former colonel in the Iranian military, sees that the house is to be auctioned off and decides to snatch it up at a low amount and improve it so he can eventually sell it and turn a profit. When Kathy seeks legal help and Behrani is asked to sell it back to the county at the price he paid, Behrani refuses, saying he wants the already-increased market value and that he should not be blamed or made to suffer for the county’s incompetence. However, Kathy, with the help of a sympathetic sheriff’s deputy named Lester (Ron Eldard), makes determined efforts to get her house back, leading to a gradual buildup of tension that ultimately culminates in unfathomable tragedy.

What makes this movie so good is that there are really no clear protagonists and antagonists. Rather, there is just a handful of people who all have understandable intentions and motives but who also all have flaws. Kathy just wants her house back, as it was left to her by her father after he toiled to pay it off completely. However, she is reaping the consequences of her negligence, despite the county’s mistakes. Behrani, meanwhile, simply wants the nostalgia of a water-front home he and his family once had in Iran, as well as an opportunity to make money so that he and his family can live prosperously. However, he seems (at least initially) almost inhuman in his refusal to return the house to Kathy. Lester, meanwhile, is a married man with children who feels bad for Kathy and quickly falls for her, sparking him to do things he otherwise would never think of doing.

Given this story structure and these characterizations, I had trouble figuring out who to root for as I was watching this movie. While this might irritate some, I found that it made the film more engrossing, as I was eager to see how things would unfold since there was no clearly righteous solution. House of Sand and Fog builds up slowly and then hits the audience with a bang (literally and figuratively), making us wonder how this type of situation could end up exploding into the tragedies that take place at the end.

Most of the way the story unfolds is quite believable given the realistic nature and depth these characters have, but my one issue was with Lester’s character. For much of the first half of the film, he is presented as a rational, sympathetic, and compassionate man. He mentions that he sees his wife more as his best friend than as a lover, and he appears to use his feelings for Kathy as an excuse to sever ties with her. But the way he suddenly does this and just abandons his children (even after remarking that he thought he would never do that after his father walked out on him) seemed somewhat out of line for his previously grounded character.

Then things escalate even more, as he abuses his position as a deputy and threatens the Behrani family. His continually irrational, unethical, illegal, and harmful actions play a critical role in how the story unfolds and in the ultimate fate of his character. I understand that strong feelings and extenuating circumstances can make good people do bad things (just ask Breaking Bad’s Walter White), but some things with Lester just seemed too sudden and too extreme (whereas Walter White’s devolution is much more gradual).

The part to me that made the least amount of sense is in the latter part of the film where Lester’s rationality actually returns, as he agrees to Behrani’s proposal to sell the house back to the county so Kathy can get it back and then turn it back over to Behrani so that she can get the money he originally gave to the county. At this point, I was thinking that Lester was finally simmering down and being smart again. But then he is excessively forceful in bringing Behrani and his son, Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout) to the county office. This leads to an eventual standoff that is misconstrued by police officers, resulting in the shooting of Esmail and the arresting of Lester. Thus, it was the return of Lester’s rash behavior that led to Esmail’s death, even after he had seemed to come back to earth.

That being said, I did appreciate the complexity of Lester and all the other characters. This characterization is what made the film unique, in my opinion. First-time director Vadim Perelman added to the film’s quality with the steady confidence of a seasoned veteran, helping make the film thoroughly captivating from the very first scene and through to the end.

Then of course there was the acting, which was a given going in. I think Connelly is an excellent actress (just look at her performances in Requiem for a Dream and A Beautiful Mind, the latter of which scored her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and she was again here, portraying an unfortunate and troubled woman who will stop at nothing to get back what she thinks is rightfully hers. After tragedy, however, she is able to put things in perspective as part of a great conclusion to the film (“Is this your house?” “…..No.”), adding another layer of depth to her character. I should also point out how powerful her performance was in the series of scenes where her character is trying to commit suicide. That part of the movie was simultaneously haunting and engrossing.

Then there’s Ben Kingsley, who has really never had a sub-par performance in anything. As the movie progressed, I found myself becoming more and more empathetic towards his character. He finally shed his layer of apparent inhumanity when he saw Kathy trying to kill herself and saved her, with the help of his wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo; more on her momentarily). His best scene (or series of scenes), however, was in the immediate aftermath of the shooting of his son, where his character understandably loses it emotionally. Kingsley conveyed such raw pain, which was even more impressive after his character had been more grounded for much of the film. Deservedly, Kingsley scored a Best Actor Oscar nomination for this role.

While I knew Connelly and Kingsley would deliver, I was pleasantly surprised by the excellent performance of Shohreh Aghdashloo (previously unknown to me) as Behrani’s wife. Her character was more openly sympathetic throughout the film than Massoud, and her acting during Kathy’s aforementioned suicide attempts was as good as anyone’s in any part of the film. It’s nice to see that she was recognized with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

With great acting, complex characters, and an engrossing and mostly believable story, House of Sand and Fog is a very good film that will sadly be overlooked in all probability as the years go by. If you haven’t seen it (and hopefully you haven’t read this whole spoiler-filled review if that’s the case, so there’s probably no point in me saying this), I highly recommend it if nothing more current is tickling your fancy (yeah, I just said that).

Tommy D’s Score:





3.5/4 Tommy Ds

About Tommy D

Clemson and UGA alum with a market research job in LA. And I kind of like movies.

Posted on June 22, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I really loved this film the first time I saw, for many of the same reasons you mentioned. In particular, it was the careful balancing act that allowed both sides of the conflict to appear sympathetic that I enjoyed. There were so many ways this could have gone wrong by tipping over to either side, but it was pulled off expertly.

    I rewatched it some time ago, and it dropped a bit in my estimation. At least towards the end, where I think it layed things on a bit too thick. I was taken out of my immersion by the heavy drama to an extent. Maybe because it’s such a stark contrast to the real feel the movie had had going for it until that point.

    Still, there’s a lot to like about this film, and I’m sure I’ll go back to it again someday. Great review, Tommy!

    • Thanks for commenting! I can definitely see where you’re coming from; while the film had to build toward something, the drama at the end is a little sudden and strong. I noticed it mostly with Lester (Ron Eldard), as he did some things that totally flew in the face of the seemingly grounded man we got to know in the film’s first half.

      Still though, the great acting and most of all, the complexity of the characters (in the sense that there was no real protagonist and antagonist) really made the movie stand out to me.

  2. Good review Tommy. I liked this flick because of the awesome performances from the cast, but the screenplay suffered a little bit. There was just something about this flick, that at first, didn’t grab me as much as it should have but I still liked how dark this film eventually got. Kingsley deserved that nomination.

    • I thought the writing for Lester (the deputy) was sub-par; I hear his character was more complex in the novel and the liberties the film had to take ended up making his character’s evolution seem disjointed. Other than that, I really enjoyed it. Like you said, the acting was great (Kingsley always is), the characters were rich, and the story was interesting in its blurring of who was good and who was bad.

  3. Looks like a really good watch, I love anything that has interesting characters and equally engaging acting.

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