Film Review: House of Sand and Fog

Truly an excellent film.
Truly an excellent film.

House of Sand and Fog is a tragic masterpiece. I’d seen it once before, years ago, but I decided to revisit it in order to share the experience with my husband. Like Requiem for a Dream, another film in which a mature Jennifer Connelly depicts the struggles of addiction, House of Sand and Fog portrays sad and destructive material with a seductive beauty that is impossible to deny or ignore. Let’s break it down into pieces to better understand why it is such effective art!

Use of Lighting

Notice how the lighting makes the fabric textures come alive in this shot.
Notice how the lighting makes the fabric textures come alive in this shot.

The use of lighting in House of Sand and Fog is masterful. The scenic nature shots of course have beautiful natural light and there are plenty of opportunities to catch light with fog, but these types of shot do not require the same level of skill as the lighting used for interior scenes, and that is where design expertise really came into play. Ordinary household objects gleam, glow, and exhibit rich lustre in this film like I rarely see in real life. It’s most obvious once the Behrani family gets their possessions set up in what used to be Kathy’s house, because the fabrics and metals the family would be using would be high quality and well-maintained, and the lighting makes those qualities more obvious. But even something as simple as the plain curtains surrounding Kathy’s window during the eviction scene are granted beauty and life by the film’s lighting. Not since American Beauty have I seen diegetic lighting make common objects look so striking. This means that even when the narrative content of the story gets ugly, the film remains aesthetically excellent.

Characters

Kathy's finally ready to admit she needs help... and her brother has no time to talk.
Kathy’s finally ready to admit she needs help… and her brother has no time to talk.

The characters in House of Sand and Fog are truly real. Everyone’s flawed and everyone’s trying to do the best they can with what they have. Ben Kingsley’s sense of honor paired with a short fuse broke my heart, Jennifer Connelly plays just the sort of wench I hate to hate, and Ron Eldard beautifully demonstrates just why a vigilante’s sense of justice is a dangerous threat to innocent people. The supporting characters play their parts excellently as well… Let me return to Connelly’s character, Kathy. I think it’s ingenious that the film never clearly explains why Pacific County tried to get her to pay business taxes in the first place. Based on the rest of her character’s actions and behavior, my hypothesis is that she legitimately owes those taxes because she tried to run a housecleaning business of her own, and she managed to fast talk her lawyer into thinking there’d been some sort of mistake… but there’s not enough evidence in the film to prove or disprove that hypothesis. The film keeps the focus on her current, dire predicament, and that gave her character what shreds of sympathy I could muster for her. Maybe I should read the book.

Themes

A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.
A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

On the surface, one can interpret the title of this film as referring to a literal, physical house, owned first by Kathy, briefly by Pacific County, and then by Colonel Behrani. But I think the real house of sand and fog the title is referring to is 21st century Western civilization. Kathy and Behrani are both trapped in overlapping webs of social systems like flies having their blood drained by political spiders. Whether or not Kathy legitimately owes Pacific County a few hundred dollars, Pacific County’s solution of evicting her from her home makes about as much sense as using a nuclear option, particularly when you consider the fact that her brother is also part owner of the home. Why should he lose his property because Kathy owes tax money? Colonel Behrani was in a fine social position in Iran but lost everything and had to emigrate when the Ayatollahs took over. In times of political upheaval, people suffer who were only cogs on the wheels, not the wheel-turning force. Kathy and the Colonel both fight fiercely for agency; Kathy’s strategy basically amounts to scorched earth, the Colonel’s is more sophisticated but ultimately neither succeeds. Game over. The house always wins.

Don’t enter the experience of House of Sand and Fog with any illusions about a happy ending. Know what you’re getting into. House of Sand and Fog will make you sigh, might make you cry, and if you have an empathetic bone in your body will poke you where it hurts. But sadness can have a beauty too, the beauty of truth. Reality ain’t always pretty. House of Sand and Fog is nothing if not real.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.

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