Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Uncertain Foundations : House of Sand and Fog

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

UNCERTAIN FOUNDATIONS : HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG

by Neil Young

American films about property-disputes usually revolve around large, impressive mansions see Cold Creek Manor for the most recent (absurd) example. So its refreshing to find that the house referred to in the portentous title of House of Sand and Fog is a relatively modest, pokey bungalow. Its location in an evocatively atmospheric corner of San Francisco is a plus, but the structure itself isn’t anything special. What matters is what the house represents: dignity, a link with the past, and the possibility of a better future for its owner.

The feuding parties are Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), a recovering alcoholic eking out a living as a house-cleaner, and Massoud Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an Iranian colonel who fled to the USA with his family during his homelands Islamic revolution of 1979. Originally owned by Kathys father, the house passes to Behrani due to a combination of her fecklessness and some bureaucratic bungling by the local authorities. Having married off his daughter Soraya (Navi Rawat) Behrani moves in with his wife Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and teenage son Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout). He obtained the property for a song at auction, and its his intention to renovate the slightly dilapidated dwelling and sell it off for a healthy profit. But Kathy refuses to accept what she sees as an injustice, enlisting the help of a local Deputy Sheriff, the seemingly well-meaning Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard). This turns out to be the latest in a long line of mis-steps by the hapless Kathy, and the consequences are disastrous for all concerned…

The humble scale of Kathys abode isn’t the only surprising and commendable aspect of House of Sand and Fog a film which intriguingly juxtaposes hard-working, family-centred immigrants with dysfunctional, out-of-control native Americans. The script (by director Perelman and Shawn Otto, based on Andre Dubus IIIs novel) takes unusual care to explore the legal and financial specifics of the situation: were told, for instance, exactly how much Behrani bought the house for, and how much he’s willing to accept. At times this attention to realistic detail is reminiscent of Aussie Bill Bennetts unexpectedly engrossing semi-documentary treatment of a notdissimilar situation in Mortgage (1989).

Until, that is, the plot disappointingly descends into a final half-hour of unwelcome, implausible, thriller-style histrionics and ostentatiously depressing twists. Critics have identified House of Sand and Fog as part of a post-9/11 wave of tragic, downbeat adult dramas alongside the likes of Mystic River and 21 Grams (and, on a smaller scale, Fear X). These films explore heavyweight issues of grief and guilt, their seriousness bolstered by the efforts of their high-calibre cast but all, to some degree, undermined by their plots reliance on coincidence and contrivance, and the inability of their scriptwriters and directors to strike the right balance between tragedy and melodrama. (At least 21 Grams applied an original execution to its overwrought story like Mystic River, House of Sand and Fog takes a standard Hollywood approach to what is, in fact, slightly non-mainstream material.)

House of Sand and FogOne could argue that any film which presents the only slightly degalmourised Connelly as a ex-alcoholic cleaning-woman was never on speaking terms with plausibility (cf. Halle Berry in Monsters Ball and Nicole Kidman in The Human Stain) but Connellys unsuitability is counterbalanced by the contributions from Kingsley and Aghdashloo. While Kathy emerges as an off-puttingly unsympathetic heroine the borderline-racist Lester is even less appealing Behrani and his wife, though not exactly unimpeachable themselves (Behrani is stubborn and autocratic; both prospered under the Shah), develop as compelling layered and nuanced characterisations. Both actors have been widely and rightly praised, with Aghdashloo working wonders with relatively limited screen-time and her characters uncertain grasp of English. Her huge Bette Davis eyes are a major help, of course the heartbreaking expression on her face in her final scene, when she takes tea with Behrani as they look out from their house at the sea view, justifies her Oscar nomination on its own*.

By this stage, things have already gone very badly for Nadi, Behrani, Kathy and everyone else a grim state of affairs signalled around the half-way stage, when Perelman cuts from a happy Behrani announcing We are blessed! to a shot of a desolate, shadowy birdbath as rain starts to fall. James Horners score unleashes an unmistakeably doomy chord – subtle, it aint. Director Perelman is guilty of trying much too hard with his first feature there are several instances of that most hackneyed of dramatic amped-up visual cliches, the infamous rushing clouds. And he has ace British cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Man Who Wasnt There) shoot and light most of scenes like they’re from a horror film: specifically, from John Carpenters similarly northern-Californian The Fog.

Such overcooked theatrics are presumably intended to distract us from the numerous plot holes what happens, for example, to Kathys mother? Part of the reason Kathy is so keen to recover the house because her mother has announced she’s going to pay a visit in two weeks. This McGuffin is conveniently forgotten about later on, apart from a brief mention towards the end, when we realise with a jolt that events which seem to have taken place over weeks and months must have in fact occurred over the course of only a few days. The time-frame just doesn’t feel right at all and nor does the climax, in which Behranis drastic actions make little sense when we remember (the unseen) Sorayas continuing existence. The audience isn’t supposed to dwell on such details, of course Perelman and Otto intend us to stagger, shattered from the cinema, weighed down by the tragic inevitability of it all. Medicine that leaves this grim a taste, the idea goes, must be beneficial.

29th February, 2004

* Ironically enough, for a film which has racism as one of its themes, Aghdashloos name doesn’t feature on the posters for House of Sand and Fog on either side of the Atlantic. In the opening credits, she’s scandalously listed after both Frances Fisher and Kim Dickens, whose roles are much briefer and more tangential.

by Neil Young