House of Sand and Fog

Robin Clifford 
House of Sand and Fog
Laura Clifford 

An ambulance pulls away into the fog, lights flashing. A woman stands smoking in the mist and watches the vehicle drive off. When a police officer approaches from behind she is startled from her reverie and we are transported to a previous time, when the problems all began, in “House of Sand and Fog.”

Kathy Nicolo’s (Jennifer Connelly) husband walked out on her months ago and she still has not gotten over it. She is also a recovering drug abuser and is so distracted by her problems that she ignores several notices from the county stating that she owes back business taxes on her home. She figured, after all, that she is not running a business in her home and doesn’t even open the notices of pending foreclosure. Suddenly, a county representative waving an eviction notice, a locksmith and two sheriff’s officers are at her door. She is told that she must vacate the premises – now!

One of the cops, Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), feels sorry for the obviously distraught Kathy and he offers to call in some markers and get some movers to haul her possessions into storage. The next thing she knows, her home, a gift from her dead father, is up for auction and sold for a quarter of its worth. The house, Kathy’s only tangible possession, goes to the highest bidder, a former colonel in the Shah of Iran’s air force, Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley).

Mr. Behrani and his family came to America after the fall of the Shah and Iran cam under the rule of the fanatic Ayatollahs. Since then, Behrani has secretly worked as a laborer, gas station attendant or whatever job he could get to make money to buy such a home as Kathy’s bungalow - at a bargain basement price. He is advised that a widow’s walk could be cheaply added on and greatly enhance the value of the place. Behrani’s strategy is to sell the house as soon as possible and turn the profits into the beginning of financial prosperity for his family. The man is truly trying to live the American dream.

Kathy has sought legal counsel for her dilemma – she is in the right but she should have responded to the notices, she is told by legal aid attorney Connie Walsh (Frances Fisher) – but the whole process could drag on for months. This news causes her to panic. In a few short weeks her mother plans to visit and Kathy never told her about her husband’s desertion. She could, at least, cover that by saying he is away on business. Now she doesn’t even have a house for mom to visit. Enter Kathy’s knight in shining armor.

Officer Les is attracted to the beautiful Kathy and keeps showing up nearby. They have dinner and she tells him of her woes – a past of substance abuse, abandoned by her husband, losing her home, mom’s pending visit and more. Les tells about his own problem living with a woman, the mother of his two children, that he no longer loves or has physical contact with. These two sad souls, adrift as they are in this cruel world, come together with passion. Lester leaves his wife and he and Kathy move into a friend’s vacant fishing cabin.

Les has the bright idea that he can speed up the process of getting Kathy’s house back and dresses up in his uniform, sans ID tag, to pay a little visit to Mr. Behrani. He approaches the man on the pretext that Behrani put up For Sale signs illegally on public property. Les threatens the Behranis with real trouble and drops the word “deportation” in his threat. This puts Mrs. Behrani, Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashoo), whose English isn’t so good, into a panic – she is, after all, from a country where a uniform always carried authority. The threat incenses Behrani and he demands the officer’s name. Les lies and leaves with the parting advice to the family: Sell the house back to the county or else. Les’s naïve good intent unleashes a torrent of events that will ultimately end in tragedy.

“House of Sand and Fog” is adapted from the novel of the same name by André Dubus III and is an almost note-by-note recreation of that story to the big screen. This is both a good and not-so-good thing. On the good side is the way director/co-writer (with Shawn Otto) Vadim Perelman captures the utterly tragic nature of the novel as we watch the events unfold, almost innocent in and of themselves, and lives are ruined and destroyed. Also on the list of good things is the terrific cast capped with an Oscar nomination worthy performance by Ben Kingsley. He gives the character of Behrani the complexity that is imbued in the novel. He is a smart, shrewd man who is unwilling to bend, even in the face of Kathy’s plight. But he is a kind and loving husband and father and wants what is best for Nadi and his son Esmail.

Jennifer Connelly gives a sad, helplessness to Kathy, a woman who life has dealt some bad cards but is also responsible for some of these bad deals. Connelly provides the proper vulnerability to her character as Kathy tries to make things right but is helpless to change anything. Her past substance abuses threaten to rekindle as she starts smoking and drinking herself to despair. It is a focused performance as we watch Kathy spiral steadily downward.

Shohreh Aghdashoo is also notable as Nadi. The Iranian actress does a marvelous job of showing Mrs. Behrani’s confusion over Kathy’s loss, the fear of deportation and desire that her husband do the right thing. She may well garner critical attention come the end of the year. Ron Eldard is also good as Deputy Sheriff Les, but this leads me to the not-so-good-thing.

Just as it struck me in the book, Les’s “plan” to scare the Behrani’s out of Kathy’s house is just a plain dumb idea that would be impossible to cover up. He gives a fake name but doesn’t he think that Mr. Behrani, a smart and educated man, might just go to his superiors and report the threat. His visit to the now-Behrani house is the catalyst that really triggers the tragedy. I understand the intent of Les’s action but it is a forced false note in an otherwise beautifully crafted story. The stupidity of Les’s action - he’s a guy that has gained a position of respect and authority in his department - drew my attention away from the story. This is not a criticism aimed at helmer Perelman and crew. They simply brought the novel, intact, to the screen.

“House of Sand and Fog” is a beautifully shot film. Veteran lenser Roger Deakins lovingly captures frequent close-ups of gorgeous Connelly as her Kathy suffers the turmoil that her life has become. The house of the title is kept awash in the in the atmospheric northern California coastal fog and is the pivotal location for the action.

I may have had some problems with the story but cannot fault the fine craftwork done both in front of and behind the camera. Kingsley is on my short list for best actor. I give it a B+.


'She's a bird, a broken one.  Grandfather said that when a bird flies into your arms, it is an angel.'                                                                                                 Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani

'Are you Cathy Kathy Nicolo?  Is this your house?' a policeman asks a sad young woman who sits overlooking a modest bungalow encased in fog and flashing police car lights. Making his feature directorial debut, Vadim Perelman leaves no doubt that we are about to see a tragic story in "House of Sand and Fog."

Andre Dubus III's novel, was about a clash of cultures killing the American dream of two equally guiltless parties.  As adapted by the director and Shawn Lawrence Otto, "House of Sand and Fog" stacks the deck more heavily against Kathy who is played as if in a fog of her own by Jennifer Connelly.  While Connelly's character is indeed sympathetic, it is Ben Kingsley's multi-layered rendering of the majestic former Iranian Air Force colonel pitted against her who haunts the memory.

Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly, "The Hulk") is a depressed former addict living in squalor in the coastal home left to her and her brother by her father.  The loud knocks of the sheriff's office rouse her to learn that she must vacate her home because of nonpayment of business taxes, a bureaucratic mixup she has little time to correct.  Strike one against Kathy - while she seemingly can still work in her ironic job as a housekeeper, she allows herself to fall into such a stupor at home that she lets the mail pile up beneath the slot it is dropped through.  Kathy seeks assistance from a public defender (a no nonsense Frances Fisher, "Blue Car"), but before they're able to take action and sue the city, Kathy's house has already been sold at auction.

Massoud Amir Behrani (Kingsley, "Sexy Beast") is a proud man struggling to present the same affluent lifestyle he enjoyed in Iran to his expatriate community in San Francisco.  Behrani has accomplished wedding his daughter to a wealthy Iranian and it is whispered that he works for Boeing at the reception.  In reality, Behrani works menial jobs, including an overnight stint at a gas station.  The auction of the Nicolo house is the beginning of the rebuilding of his personal respectability.

Kathy's second strike comes when she allows the sympathy of married Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard, "Ghost Ship") to turn into something else.  They see Behrani as a foreigner looking to make a quick buck by restoring her house, then selling it.  Behrani sees them as prejudiced and pampered Americans.  Further complicating matters is the interplay between Kathy and Behrani's wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo, "Maryam") and son Esamail (newcomer Jonathan Ahdout) who do not initially understand her connection to their new home and offer her only kindness.

The character of Burdon is a major problem.  The man has no admirable qualities, which reflects poorly on Kathy.  He uses a beautiful young woman in distress as an excuse to extricate himself from a marriage (wife Carol is well played in two brief scenes by Kim Dickens) that only seems to have grown too comfortable.  The Deputy Sheriff, who should have a trained eye, allows a professed former substance abuser to drink alcohol.  He then uses his badge and a fake name to threaten Behrani.  Burdon is a necessary element of the ever-escalating collision of wills, one just wishes he had been more well thought out.

Connelly's portrayal of Kathy as a lost, wounded beauty is fine, but she is outclassed by Kingsley, who admittedly has a more complexly written character.  While Connelly's Kathy spills her neediness out for all to see, Kingsley's Behrani draws admiration for suffering in silence, actually martyred for his macho pride.  It is also Connelly's misfortune to always appear glamorous and Perelman does nothing to downplay her beauty - taken out to dinner by Lester, the homeless woman appears in a beautiful dress and strappy heels.  Kingsley runs through a gamut of emotions while rarely dropping the outward facade that shields his standing in society.  He is desperate to become financially sound, frustrated by his uncomprehending wife's demands and terrified by the haunting of the fragile beauty whose misfortune is his gain.  Kingsley also conveys a rich heritage and spiritual beliefs that eventually break down his resistance to Kathy.  His Behrani is a good man forced into a corner who eventually turns the other cheek.  Another stunning performance is given by Shohreh Aghdashloo, who gets to the heart of a woman utterly dependent on her husband as a stranger in a foreign land.  Aghdashloo shows the spoiled traits of a woman used to moving in the upper classes, but her calm kindness is her real essence.  Eldard is saddled with a poorly conceived character, but makes him believable nonetheless.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins ("A Beautiful Mind") and production designer Maia Javan ("The Banger Sisters") succeed in making the house itself a character.  Deakins photographs it inside and out, from the details that define a home to the landscape it is set within (the view from the house ties it to the Behrani's former, more palatial home in Iran, and also gives the modest home cache).  The house is reflects its two owners with unshowy set decoration, while maintaining its own identity.  A cherished Iranian metalwork coffee table is used to symbolically illustrate the cultural clash between Kathy and the Colonel.  James Horner ("Titanic") delivers another nice score after his work on "The Missing," a mournful accompaniment to this unrelenting tragedy.

Russian born Perelman has given his film's perspective more fully to the foreigner in the land of opportunity, but the universal desire for land ownership has never been more lamentably depicted.

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