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FEATURED FILM - House Of Sand And Fog 




House Of Sand And Fog (2004)


Directed by Vadim Perelman


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


Rated R

Length 126


Attention: spoilers!



Kathy (Connelly), a recovering drug addict whose husband left her months ago, is evicted from the house she inherited from her father due to unpaid business taxes.  Later we learn that this penalty is a bureaucratic mistake.  Within minutes she is banished from the property, aided only by a cop's pity.  (Since I've come to expect Jennifer Connelly to play an unkempt, rather ratty role, I wasn't surprised by this one.) While Kathy has sunk into degradation, a former Iranian named Behrani (Kingsley) has been working construction and store clerk jobs to improve his family's condition.  His plan?  Purchase a cheap house, improve it, and then sell it for profit.  When the county puts Kathy's house on auction, Behrani bites.  He buys the house, adds a widow's walk, and puts the house up for sale at 4 times the original price.


The Behrani family fled from Iran for an undisclosed reason and are now American citizens.  Behrani has married off an adult daughter, supports a dear wife named Nadi (Aghdashloo), and seeks to pay for his son, Esmail (Ahdoubt), to go to college eventually.  Behrani served the former Shah as a colonel; now he must swallow his pride to make ends meet in America.


With no legal recourse and no home, Kathy falls into a seedy relationship with the helpful cop, Lester (Eldard).  Using Kathy for energy to finally escape a marriage that has become boring for him, Lester repudiates his own wife and children.  He becomes obsessed with Kathy's plight, unscrupulously eager to coerce Behrani into selling the house back to the county at the original price, so Kathy can reclaim her house.


Misinterpretation, tension, and pain mount into a vicious, tragic clash brought upon by fatal forces, set into motion and compounded by stupid taxation, misdirected passion, bigotry, and butting heads.





Lester: "You're a long way from home, aren't you?"

Behrani: "This is my home.  I'm an American citizen."


House of Sand And Fog is based on the novel of the same title by Andre Dubus III.  Director/screenwriter Vadim Perelman read the book, loved it, and adapted it into his first feature film.  I admire debut filmmakers who are brave enough to step onto the scene with a bone-breaking drama.  Perelman achieved a grand work, complete with splendid actors, that does exactly what he sought to do for the audience: "I want them to be moved."


As usual, I seek classically tragic elements in worthy films.  The House Of Sand And Fog satisfies this search quite easily.  Aristotle described good drama as effective audience purgation through pity and fear, committed by artistic imitation of human action.  This is best applied in tragic drama, which deals with particular characters and situations in context to universal truths.  And a Complex tragic action entails Reversal of a situation and/or Recognition (which pivot on surprises) and Suffering (destruction, harm, murder, death). 


After absorbing Sand And Fog, one can see the tragic beeline to explosive denouement, as if the gods moved the characters instead of responsible free will.  Whether it's Euripides' Hippolytus or Stephen King's The Green Mile, a good tragedy contains that crucial beeline, that stark stroke of blind fate.  As soon as Lester steps into Kathy's shattered world, he is doomed; as soon as Behrani grasps for deserved prosperity in a web of financial folly and careless policies, he and his family are doomed.  Kathy's and the Behranis' intersection ignites a wholly avoidable conflict that only the audience, the passive chorus, can distinguish.


I recently reviewed Mystic River, directed by Clint Eastwood.  This film is very similar to Sand And Fog.  Both films depict burdened characters whose inability to communicate clearly perpetuates misery and guarantees ill consequences.  Both films deliver high tragedy, sharp catharsis.  And the films share a frequent, key element of good tragedy: innocents suffering and/or dying for rather stupid reasons (like John Coffey in King's The Green Mile).  Though nobody is entirely blameless, folks are undeservedly punished for particular flaws, others' mistakes, deceit, or treachery.  Small misdeeds and crimes swell into large predicaments.  Good tragedy derives its power from depicting a fall from fortune due to some folly or weakness or miscalculation.  Like Mystic River, Sand And Fog is a matter of unduly harsh, magnified consequences for real, imprudent action and inaction.  Folly and sin multiply.


The novel's author, Andre Dubus III, claims that he had actor Sir Ben Kingsley's profile in mind while writing the Colonel Behrani character.  Well, this lucky bastard got to see his imagination manifested on screen, since Kingsley enthusiastically agreed to take the role.  Kingsley, of course, is stellar.  He depicts subtle, Persian mannerism and tradition as deftly as he embodied Ghandi in the 1980s.  His acting face emits charm, patience, authority, sorrow, sternness, and worry like no other.  I'm amazed that Kingsley played the nefarious, sheerly frightening Don in Sexy Beast.  Such versatility marks an impeccable actor.  While Robert DeNiro deserves praise, the majority of his roles are relatively similar.  But Sir Ben?  From pacific Ghandi to impulsive, ruthless Don, from Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List to the masterfully self-suppressed monster, Dr. Miranda, in Death And The Maiden, Kingsley seems to channel personalities rather than memorize them.


The film's primary themes are rank, home, and appreciating God's blessing.  Behrani nobly clings to all of these.  Despite his reduced status in America, he carries a colonel's dignity.  He fondly regards a prized photo of he and other officials gathered around the Shah.  After filthy construction or idling at a mundane store clerk job, he makes sure to cleanse and change clothes in a public bathroom, shed his secret labor's evidence, sustain his well-to-do appearance for all others.  The rank aspect continues throughout the film: when lowly Field Training Officer Lester bullies Behrani about relinquishing the house, when Kathy's lawyer (played by Frances Fisher) turns out to not be a traditional male, the chain of command in Behrani's construction job and the county police force, etc.  Behrani shines among them, proud and determined to strategically assimilate.  He tells his wife, "I did not come to America to live like an Arab!"


The home and blessing themes coincide.  Kathy's neglect of the house her father labored to secure produces eviction and destruction;  Lester takes his wife and children for granted, selfishly abandons them, only to end up in a run-down cabin with Kathy; Behrani's diligence repairs and improves the house -- and is aimed at improving his dear family, as well.  Appreciation for God's blessing is a recurring point.  Behrani explains to Esmail, "Americans, they do not deserve what they have.  They have the eyes of small children who are forever looking for the next source of distraction, entertainment, sweet taste in their mouth.  We are not like them.  We know rich opportunities when we see them.  Do not throw away God's blessing."  (Tellingly, when Nadi takes her tea, she bites into a sugar cube before sipping.)


The Behranis' and Kathy's and Lesters' coupling are effectively paralleled.  While Behrani and Nadi make sincere, time-tested love, Kathy and Lester immediately jump into the sack and squander their bodies in favor of momentary passion.  As usual in most modern films, the down-and-out woman listens to some guy whine about being disenchanted with his otherwise great wife and children, blows off the important information, and sleazily offers herself to him.  No regard for the guy's children or his obvious shirking of loyalty (which should give one pause about how such a person might end up treating them).  When characters show no concern for these aspects and never recognize the evil of participating as infidels, I get frustrated.  Sand And Fog failed me in this area.  I assume the Kathy and Lester characters were supposed to elicit more sympathy than I found, but I think the fault lies in the script.


Kathy's and Lester's stupidity shows up several times.  After learning that Kathy has tried to be sober for years, Lester continues to drink beer around her.  Later, on a date, he orders WINE.  What a moron!  And what does Kathy do?  Nonchalantly starts drinking again!  Brilliant, you two!  Then Lester crosses the legal line and pressures Behrani with threats, undermining his police ethic as wantonly as he did his marriage and fatherhood.  No wonder I cheered when Lester said to Kathy, "I don't deserve you" and Kathy replied, "Of course you do."  Flea-bitten dogs are comfortable together.  Kathy's formerly pitiable mess is overshadowed by her self-destructiveness and acceptance of Lester's behavior, putting the Behrani family in an almost completely favorable light.


Behrani's error is much less reprehensible.  His strategy is legal and morally intended.  Yet in his singular drive to secure his family's prosperity he stubbornly turns a blind eye to Kathy's fundamental plight.  At closer, more objective inspection, he might consider that Kathy is someone's daughter, someone in great need.  The Behranis are naturally welcoming folk, but the bare fact of Kathy must be ignored in order to proceed with the grand design.  So Behrani's very love for his family seems to be selfish cruelty to Kathy and Lester.  When Kathy's lawyer blames Behrani for putting profit over all else, he says, "Things are not as they appear."  And this is the truth.  A truth that seals the characters' fates.


Here is where the fog motif factors.  Fog obscures, changes perception, blurs definition.  Fog also drifts indiscriminately, much like fate.  Very good-hearted people can be destroyed as quickly as criminals.  Very good-hearted people can be mistaken as criminals or become criminals.  All the while, fogged vision perpetuates misperception.  Tricked eyes betray good and hurt hearts, whether they are deliberately or accidentally tricked.  A common result is illusory inevitability.  Characters' choices lock them into tragic beelines; hope of alternatives wilts.  This is symbolized when Behrani hires workers to add a terrace and widow's walk to the house.  The workers tell him that the kitchen window Nadi so loves must be sacrificed.  "This window must be obstructed," Behrani hesitantly says.  A worker replies, "I don't see any other way."  Behrani accepts.  No other way is seen by the three main characters, at least not until it's too late.


When Kathy's hopelessness finally drives her to a very extreme measure, Behrani realizes her pain and offers her help.  The family opens their house to her.  Father tells son, "We must help her.  She's a bird, a broken one."  (Interestingly, he greeted his own daughter as "little bird, little bird" earlier in the film.)  Behrani's basic compassion surfaces, complicating his plan.  The heart invades the head.  But the invasion is not rash like Lester's.  Rather, it stems from the respect for God's blessings, neighborly clarity.  The fog clears enough for Kathy to be salvaged by the very folks who unwittingly stole her home.  However, the plot further complicates, set on a fatal course.  I'll refrain from divulging what happens.


I close by celebrating two small, poignant parts of The House Of Sand And Fog.  The first concerns Kathy talking to her mother on the phone while in bed.  After seeing the messy house, watching Kathy's behavior, and hearing the mother's suspicious questions, we understand that the husband doesn't live there anymore and that Kathy's depressed.  As she talks into the phone a single tear rolls from her left eye.  (Connelly deserves credit for good acting,  I must admit.)  In a later scene, Behrani is touring the vacant house.  He stops by the kitchen sink, noticing the leaky faucet.  He shakes the handle, trying to stop the leak.  But his effort fails him.  The leak persists.  Amazing how significant a single tear and a dripping faucet can be.



review by David Herrle 7/2004



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