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House of Sand and Fog (2003)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

If you are looking for a “feel good” movie, this is definitely not that movie. The performances are excellent as is the writing and direction, but this is not a movie that will fill viewers with the infinite possibilities of human potential. That isn’t what this film is about. Then why is a reviewer that focuses on individualism recommending it? The answer to that is not very complicated. It is what I will now attempt to explain.

Movies such as Nineteen Eighty-Four, Dr. Strangelove, and even Fahrenheit 451 focus much of their attention on individualism’s intellectual opponent: collectivism. That ideological force of opposition to individualism has a major expression in today’s world: the State. Nowhere in House of Sand and Fog are there speeches from heroic rebels with names such as Ragnar and Francisco, or even defiant action from lesser rebels with names such as Winston or Montag. Don’t bother looking for that sort of thing, you won’t find it in this movie. You also won’t find any Ellsworths, O’Briens or even a Captain of Firemen who stand out as particularly villainous from their explicit advocacy of collectivism or statism. In everyday life most people don’t meet leaders of the state such as Stalin, Hitler and Mao; or even such lesser tyrants as George Bush or Bill Clinton. However, those “great leaders” rely on everyday people in “less exalted” stations of life, who merely “do their job,” to maintain their influence and power. Those “less exalted” statists appear in abundance in this movie.

I have not read the book House of Sand and Fog written by Andre Dubus III. I don’t know that he intended readers to have the understanding of this story which I have from watching the movie. However, he must have been aware of many particulars of this movie’s production, since he appears in it. Vadim Perelman, who wrote the screenplay as well as producing and directing this film, was born in the Ukraine in 1963. Although he did not live under Stalin, he must be quite familiar with life under the unrestrained state. The State does not appear as an actual figure in this movie. It doesn’t present itself in the form of “Big Brother” (Nineteen Eighty-Four), Dr. Strangelove (Dr. Strangelove) or “Father” (Equilibrium). This movie is more subtle than that.

The movie begins, after some scenery shots, with Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly) lying drowsily in bed on the phone with her mother. Kathy’s husband has left her and her father has died, leaving her the house in which she lives. These things cannot be blamed on the State. Marriages don’t always work and even the best fathers are mortal. However, this background gives a reasonable explanation of her feelings of depression and focus on her troubles. They are not terribly unusual responses to circumstances such as hers.

During the phone conversation Kathy’s mother decides she is coming to visit in the near future. After she hangs up the phone, there is a knock on the door and Kathy’s troubles take an exponential leap in magnitude: the county is repossessing her house for non-payment of taxes. If we watch and listen somewhat closely in the next few minutes (which may have been too much for many reviewers), we discover that Kathy is not a tax resistor or even merely a “non-responsive citizen.” She is more accurately described as being on the receiving end of the County’s bureaucratic mistakes. Kathy owes no legitimate business taxes, a fact she has already talked to county officials about several months earlier.

These facts do nothing to alter the actions of the bureaucrats and enforcers who are taking Kathy’s house from her. Before she and her lawyer (who is quite unsympathetic to Kathy’s plight, perhaps because the lawyer is an “officer of the court”) can do much, she is out of her house and it is sold to a family of Iranian immigrants. Behrani (Ben Kingsley) is the patriarch of this family. Early in the movie, Behrani’s daughter is married and lives away from her father, mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and brother Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout). Although Behrani works very hard at manual labor in America, he once worked in the military service of the Shah (another flavor of statism). His family cannot return to their homeland, Iran, which has a new gang of statists who would be very happy to kill them.

Kathy forms a bond with Sheriff Lester (Ron Eldard), one of the bunch who served her with eviction papers. Lester is a state agent and although he sympathizes with Kathy for personal reasons, he has been trained in the methods of the state: force and deception. In trying to help her, he uses these methods in dealing with Behrani which induces and amplifies a spiral of escalation leading to many of the usual side effects that force and deception achieve.

I have tried to avoid spoilers in this review and have focused instead on themes. If you watch House of Sand and Fog, take careful note of the action. Observe who does what to whom. The State is played by no villainous superman, but that does not reduce its presence. On the contrary, it is behind all the injustice and tragedy which very realistically could be taken from newspapers in almost any major city. Do not expect a happy ending, but instead look for insight about what is poisoning the lives of so many people in today’s America.

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