House of Sand & Fog
I kept hearing that this film had a surprising ending, so I was half expecting one of the usual surprises which have become, sort of popular, I guess: imaginary friends or enemies, seeing dead people?something of that nature. But either the surprise never happened (and that was the surprise!), or it portrayed something that I personally have become quite familiar with and so intuited early. Complete helplessness after one of life's myriad train-wrecks.
The movie flips back and forth between two stories, so to spare the confusion in writing I'll start out with Kathy (Connelly) nearly decomposing in a little frumpy house near the San Francisco Bay after being deserted by a husband we never see. The phone wakes her up, and her Mother calls and asks how her husband is and tells her that she is going to come visit. Kathy hides the truth from her, telling her Mother that her husband is asleep next to her, and tries to get out of the visit, but can’t. After faking an excuse to end the conversation, she hangs up and gets out of the now vacant bed. She is clearly emptied of the drive to put her life back together and is numbly surprised when the government comes to seize her house because she supposedly didn’t pay some back taxes. Officer Burdon (Eldard) accompanying the repo man takes pity on the woman as she sits pathetically on the floor, stunned, and he volunteers to help her get moved. Since she is evicted on the spot, she doesn’t have time to find out how this all happened?but the pile of envelopes under the mail slot tells us that she probably had the time to prevent it, even if not the will. With all her worldly possessions in storage and herself booked into a cheap hotel, she meets with a lawyer (Fisher) who tries to solve the problem. There was a mistake. She owed no back taxes and she had sent a notice to the correct officials, but didn’t do some follow-up paperwork and now its status has mistakenly reverted back to that of a recoverable asset.
Alternately we are shown an entirely different story in another part of the city. One of many middle aged, immigrant men working for Cal Trans (the familiar orange vests were a dead giveaway) by day, but mysteriously shaving and changing his clothes into a fine suit before coming home to his immaculate and gorgeously trimmed home with wife Nadi (Aghdashloo) and teenaged son Esmail (Ahdout), and then going back out again to work at a convenience store by night. As he enters the cost of a candy bar he’s eating into a large logbook, we see the expenses his family is racking up. We learn the family is from Iran when, at his daughter’s extravagant wedding, we watch the father toasting the couple. It seems this man’s family knows nothing about how much money he is really making or how much they are really spending. He insulates them from all knowledge of it. Why? He used to be a Colonel in the Iranian military during the last Shah’s reign and had fled the country with his family when it was taken over by the religious revolutionaries. They are used to wealth and had a beautiful home on the Caspian sea. Then one day he sees a notice in the paper about a house that was being sold for a stupidly low price close to the San Francisco Bay. When he goes to view it, he is obviously taken over by the deep longing to restore what was lost to his family and dignity.
As you may guess, the two houses are one and the same. These two people crash together around the house like twin waves of oil and water. We see the honest, struggling immigrant, Mr. Behrani, fighting for his piece of the American pie as well as the restoration of the former life he had earned and lost in Iran. Recovery is only a heartbeat away as he starts making alterations on the house he has already moved into. Then we see the bereft, hopelessly despairing Kathy using every one of her dwindling resources to stay safe and sane until she can get the house back before her Mother comes to visit. Mr. Behrani proudly quits his job for the road crew and begins to finally relax with the family he clearly loves, though he treats them with that completely foreign kind of love that a male-dominated, paternalistic society cultivates. Kathy’s credit card is topped out and she ditches the hotel without paying the bill. Mr. Behrani enjoys his wife’s love and mentors his son. Kathy cleans up at a small sink in a public restroom and tries to visit the house and talk to Mr. Behrani. Mr. Behrani, already showing the now altered and higher-priced house to potential buyers, tries to dismiss her discretely, explaining that his family knows nothing about the confusion, but when angered by her persistence, he manhandles her off the premises. Kathy pays another visit to the house and tries to talk to Mrs. Behrani, not realizing that only Mr. Behrani would have any understanding or authority to deal with this legal/financial problem. He arrives home and sees her and again muscles her away to his wife’s distress.
Then one day, the kindly, but married, Officer Burden finds Kathy parked in front of the station in her car. They work each other for their own personal gains and strike up a strained kind of relationship. His police powers embolden him to intimidate Mr. Behrani into working out a deal for Kathy. Mr. Behrani goes straight to his boss and reinforces his rights as a citizen. Much ugliness follows and swells until the final clash leaves everyone with less than what they had to begin with.
Kathy and Mr. Behrani are two ends of the same experience. The one is the privileged, pretty young woman for whom Daddy worked so hard to build the fairy tale: her parent bequeaths her a house to live in with her husband so they can live happily ever after. But when she naturally wants the next piece to complete the set, children, her husband dumps her. Her lack of experience and drive to make things happen for herself leaves us with the impression that she is spoiled and stupid. But this is quite probably the kind of girl Daddy created.
The other is the strong, proud, hardworking head of a family who provides them with a life of splendor that he carefully floats like a paper boat on top of a sea of chaos and danger. His controlling, overbearing motivation to create a protected Eden for his family and recovered status for himself shocks us with its foreign and frightening fierceness. He fawns over his children as if they were a prince and princess. He loves his wife, but as trouble escalates and he doesn’t give her enough information to make sense of it, she bursts out at him, overflowing with the anxiety and rage only a helpless, childlike, protected female knows?and he smacks her across the face for it. We think he is a Monster. But this is not the case either.
They are each trying to live the fantasy of being Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses. Near the end of the movie, Mr. Behrani finally sees Kathy’s situation with the eyes of a father and recognizes her as a woman who once had dignity, but has no wealth, or a father or husband to protect her. He, more than most, could value her “lost princess” tragedy. And even though he had been rough with her and cruel at first, she grew a daughterly attachment to him when at last he understood her plight. Maybe understanding more than she understood it herself, he began to treat her with respect. It took about 45 seconds for the change to transpire so they finally could speak one another’s languages.
It’s tempting to try and force an analogy here about God and Israel, or Jerusalem, or some composite that was prophesied about in Ezekiel 16, but I don't think that’s wise. Kathy is much more complex than the character God describes as sinful, idolatrous, adulterous Israel.
There has been a movement in the Church (I don't know who started it, I have a few guesses but I’m not going to go there) that put wives/daughters/women up on pedestals as “Princesses.” I guess it’s part of the marketing package for purity and virginity these days. Many people seem to want girls and women to live according to this kind of aesthetic so as to be like walking talking commercials for Wholesome Christian Living. I think it needed to be marketed this way because it really looks so absurd and archaic in this country and in this day and age. “You’re not a loser/geek/dweeb, you’re a princess!” For parents, it seems kind of cute and fun to dress up their daughters that way for a while. But what isn’t understood until it’s too late is how the pressure from peers combined with the pressure from Church and parents creates a sort of Elitism that becomes more ugly than the most hideous dragon.
We saw a snippet of the dragon in Mr. Behrani’s daughter Soraya when she came to visit with her new husband and in-laws. Kathy’s strength is that she did not lower her character to be arrogant like Soraya. She was humble and loving and always asking about and aware of other people’s feelings as well as her own. In secular culture (although women don’t come under pressure to be virginal, they do come under pressure to be a smart player instead of the victim?eat or be eaten.) this arrogance is named with the now complimentary “B” word. It’s something to aspire to. Contrast this with the demeanor and behavior of the real Princess Diana, even in her worst moments.
This is America. Love it or leave it. Things are not easy here, but they are possible. For those who work smart and hard and go without, the fruit ripens for the picking. But for those whose survival needs were never threatened and who have grown accustomed to having less concrete reasons to get out of bed in the morning, it can become a very infertile field indeed. For Christians tempted to play The Princess Game, take warning: The reality of the Biblical times understanding of an unattached woman with no inheritance or property was just as Mr. Behrani said, “In my country, you don’t be worthy to raise your eyes to me! You are nothing! NOTHING!” Here and now, women are no longer favored as they used to be as the default helpless victims of loss. She will soon be considered every inch the potential taxpayer that her male counterpart is, with or without kids. The changing welfare laws reflect this. Everything can be lost in a heartbeat, and then where will she be? Who will she be if she understands little about the laws of the American Jungle and is never taught to generate the appropriate resources to leverage their cruel power?
Again I observed all the oppression that takes place in our world. I saw the tears of the oppressed, with no one to comfort them. The oppressors have great power, and the victims are helpless. So I concluded that the dead are better off than the living. And most fortunate of all are those who were never born. For they have never seen all the evil that is done in our world...
Two people can accomplish more than twice as much as one; they get a better return for their labor. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But people who are alone when they fall are in real trouble . . .
If you see a poor person being oppressed by the powerful and justice being miscarried throughout the land, don't be surprised! For every official is under orders from higher up, and matters of justice only get lost in red tape and bureaucracy. Even the king milks the land for his own profit . . .
And this, too, is a very serious problem. As people come into this world, so they depart. All their hard work is for nothing. They have been working for the wind, and everything will be swept away. Throughout their lives, they live under a cloud?frustrated, discouraged, and angry.
~Ecc. 4:1-3,9,10; 5:8,9,16,17
DVD Commentary track:
Vadim Perelman (Director/Screenwriter)
Andre Dubus III (Author)
Sir Ben Kingsley (Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani)
—About this Film