House of Sand and Fog is 2003 Academy Award-winning film about an Iranian family in America. It was adaopted from a 1999 novel by Andre Dubus III.
The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, for Best Original Score (James Horner), Best Actor (Ben Kingsley) and Best Supporting Actress (Shohreh Aghdashloo).
| Spoiler warning: The following contains plot details about|
the entire movie.
Having fled Iran, and now trying to pull their shattered lives back together, the father, Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley), buys a beachside bungalow in San Francisco that is being auctioned by the county because its owner, Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connelly), cannot pay business taxes on it.
The problem is, Nicolo is broke, doesn’t run a business, and has no taxes to pay. She also doesn’t open her mail for weeks at a time, and so she misses the numerous warnings sent out by the county. The sale may be llegal on one level, but Kathy’s negligence has left her in a precarious position. Getting the house back through the courts may take months, and now Massoud Behrani wants not his original payment, but four times that amount: the current appraised value. Nicolo, on the other hand, has to get the house back: it was her father’s dying legacy to her and her brother.
Into this volatile mix comes Lester Burdon, the deputy sheriff assigned to help Nicolo get moved out. He has a wife and two kids, but cynically falls for this desperate single young woman. As his sense of sexual morality becomes blurred, Lester’s sense of legal boundaries wavers, too. One night, he goes to the Behrani home, breathing vague threats of investigations and probably deportation. By the end of the film, he completely loses his moral compass, locks the Behranis in their bathroom overnight, and extracts a promise from Massoud that he will sign the house back over to the county, and ultimately return it to Kathy.
On the steps of the courthouse, however, Colonel Massoud's teenage son Esmail grabs Lester’s gun, and, in a tragic confrontation, is shot dead by security officers. His father returns home, distraught and unable to tell his wife. In a final downward spiral of their lives, Massoud laces some tea with sleeping medication and feeds it to his wife Nadi. He then covers his own head with a plastic bag, tightly wraps packaging tape around the neck, lies down on the bed next to her, and, in one of the most grisly suicide scenes I’ve ever witnessed on TV or film, takes his own life as we watch the bag cloud with the moisture of his own breathing, and finally conform tightly to the contours of his dead face.
The “message” of the film, according to most reviewers, seems to be that this is a proud man, broken by the cultural impasse that makes it as impossible for him to give up the house as it is for Kathy to let him have it. Kingsley is up for a Golden Globe award, and probably will be nominated for an Oscar, too. He may deserve it for his portrayal of Massoud Behrani. But I profoundly disagree with the interpretation of the film that most reviewers are giving it.
After seeing “House of Sand and Fog”, two statements in the film continued to worry at the edges of my mind. One comes when Esmail asks his father, “Were you Savaki [a member of the Shah’s dreaded secret police]?” Massoud’s answer, that he merely dealt in government contracts, has the faint odor of a man trying to keep a secret from a loved one. It is meant to sound like he went to Safeway every week to buy groceries for the army, but “contracts” is a conveniently flexible word in any language.
The second statement is hurled in Massoud’s face by his wife, Nadi, when she screams at him, “You ruined our lives in Iran!!” At first hearing, it sounds like the whining of a spoiled woman of privilege, and he slaps her face for it. But taken together with Esmail’s question a little later, it hints at the “hidden years” the film never shows us. And paints a completely different back-story for the murder-suicide of Nadi and Massoud at the end.
Massoud was indeed “Savaki”. No other answer suffices to explain the fury in Nadi’s face and voice. And as the Behranis attempt to re-build their lives in America, it is not the buying of a house, or the clash of values and pride between themselves and Kathy Nicolo, that are the crux of the film. It is the threatening presence of Kathy’s deputy sheriff boyfriend, Lester, who brings into the lives of the Behranis the very things that Colonel Behrani himself unleashed on the lives of countless Iranian families who found themselves on the wrong side of the Shah’s torturing, murdering secret police: the knock at the door in the middle of the night, the not-so-veiled leering threat, the disorienting sense of nowhere to turn for help against dark and ultimately irresistible forces.
The man who did these things, or at least authorized their being done to others, now finds that he himself is no better or stronger than those he oppressed back in Iran. And as a result, Massoud Behrani’s murder of his wife and his own suicide take on a completely different hue. Massoud is no hero, no towering figure of strength and cultural pride. He is an inevitable product of the life he himself created and lived back in Iran. Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, complete with chains rattling, Lester Burden comes to remind Massoud of who and what he really was and still is.
When Behrani takes his own life, it is the response of a man who cannot face the very things he did to others. His character and nobility are a sham. The true “House of Sand and Fog” is not a bungalow perched on a San Francisco hillside overlooking the Pacific. It is the new-life-without-a-past that Colonel Massoud Behrani has tried and failed to build for himself. In the end, like a great sinkhole, it swallows his entire family.
And it is perhaps the saddest commentary of all that, with Esmail dead, Massoud no longer has anything left to live for. In the sad arithmetic of Middle Eastern values, his beautiful, cultured wife and his vivacious daughter, newly married into a family with money and connections, count for nothing. The former he takes down with him, the latter he simply abandons to deal in whatever way she can with the shame he cannot face.
Spoilers end here.
- Jennifer Connelly: Kathy Lazarro Niccolo
- Ben Kingsley: Col. Massoud Amir Behrani
- Shohreh Aghdashloo: Nadireh 'Nadi' Behrani
- Ron Eldard: Deputy Lester Burdon
- Frances Fisher: Connie Walsh
- Kim Dickens: Carol Burdon
- Jonathan Ahdout: Esmail Behrani
Movie vs NovelEdit
Two main differences exist between the movie and the novel. First, the book gives the reader more detail into Lester Burdon’s life. Lester’s father abandoned Lester and his family when Lester was a teenager. The movie mentions the abandonment, but provides no background. Lester also endured bullying as a child, and young man. The novel suggest these experiences in his youth led to some of the bad decisions made, first threatening the Colonel, and then kidnapping the Colonel and his family in order to force the Colonel into giving the house back to Kathy.
Second, the movie depicts the ending differently. The movie depicts the Colonel arriving at home after witnessing the death of his son. He poisons his wife by serving her tea with an overdose of her pain medication. He then commits suicide. Kathy finds the Colonel and his wife and tries to resuscitate the Colonel, but it is too late.
The novel ends differently. When the Colonel returns home, Kathy is there. The Colonel is enraged, and strangles Kathy. He then smothers his sleeping wife, and ends his own life. Kathy wakes up in the hospital unable to speak and is later transferred to a prison. Lester Burdon is also in prison.