The story concerns the battle between a young woman and an immigrant Iranian family over the ownership of a house in Northern California, which ultimately leads to the destruction of four lives. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actor (Ben Kingsley), Best Supporting Actress (Shohreh Aghdashloo), and Best Original Score (James Horner).
Abandoned by her husband, recovering drug addict Kathy Nicolo, living alone in a small house near the San Francisco Bay Area, ignores eviction notices erroneously sent to her for nonpayment of business taxes. Assuming the misunderstanding was cleared up months ago, she is surprised when Sheriff's Deputy Lester Burdon arrives to forcibly evict her. Telling Kathy that her home is to be auctioned off, Burdon feels sympathy for her, helps her move out and advises her to seek legal assistance to regain her house.
A former Imperial Iranian Army Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani who fled his homeland with his family, now lives in the Bay Area working multiple menial jobs. Living beyond his means, he maintains the façade of a respectable businessman so as not to shame his wife Nadereh, son Esmail, and daughter Soraya.
Seeing the auction of Kathy's house in the newspaper, he buys it for a quarter of its actual value, intending to improve and sell the house. Meanwhile, Kathy is evicted from the motel she is staying in. Having nowhere else to go, she spends the night in her car outside her home. The next morning Kathy is angered to see her house being renovated and confronts the workers, injuring her foot. Nadereh and Esmail treat her wound, but her jealousy at seeing how the Behranis have settled in only makes her more determined to get her house back.
Taking Lester's advice, Kathy finds an attorney who assures her that because of the county's mistake, they will return Massoud's money and the house will be restored to her. Massoud, having already spent money on improving the house, is unwilling to accept anything less than the much higher appraised value of the property, which the county refuses to pay. Informed that her only option is to sue the county, Kathy instead tries to convince Massoud to sell back the house for what he paid by telling him she and her brother inherited it from their father. Massoud refuses and angrily forces Kathy back into her car.
Desperate for help, Kathy seeks out Lester and seduces him into abandoning his wife and children and becoming her protector. Using a pseudonym, Lester confronts Massoud and threatens to have him deported if he refuses to sell the house back to the county. Massoud reports this to the police and identifies Lester from a photo, resulting in a reprimand by internal affairs, and gives Kathy a furious warning to back off and leave him and his family alone. Now aware that Lester is in trouble, Kathy calls her brother Frank, but cannot bring herself to admit that she is homeless, and he is unable to help her.
Despondent, Kathy first considers driving to the house and burning it, but after becoming drunk attempts suicide in the driveway with Lester's sidearm instead. Massoud finds her in her car drunkenly unable to discharge the gun, and brings her inside. Kathy again tries to kill herself with pills, but Nadereh saves her by inducing her to vomit. As she and her husband carry Kathy to the bedroom, Lester breaks into the house, retrieves his sidearm, sees Kathy unconscious, and locks the Behranis in their own bathroom, refusing to let them out until Massoud agrees to relinquish the house. Massoud eventually offers to sell the house back to the county for the price he paid and will give Kathy the money in exchange for her putting the house in his name. Lester agrees to take Massoud and Esmail to the county office to finalize the transaction, and Kathy reluctantly goes along with the plan.
Outside the office, Lester begins to manhandle Massoud and Esmail seizes Lester's gun and aims it at him. Massoud grabs hold of Lester and screams for help, drawing the attention of nearby police officers who misinterpret the situation and shoot Esmail. Massoud is arrested but is released after Lester confesses, and is incarcerated.
Massoud rushes to the hospital and while he is there he prays, begging God to save his son and vowing to make whatever changes he needs to in his life. But he finds his son did not survive. Distraught and grief-stricken, Massoud goes home and, believing they have nothing left to live for, kills Nadereh by lacing her tea with pills. He then dons his old military uniform, tapes a plastic dust cover over his head, and asphyxiates himself while clutching his wife's hand. Kathy eventually discovers the couple and frantically attempts to resuscitate Massoud but she is too late. As the bodies of Massoud and Nadereh are taken away by paramedics, a policeman asks Kathy if the house is hers. After a long pause, she quietly replies, "No, it's not my house."Jennifer Connelly as Kathy Nicolo
Ben Kingsley as Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani
Shohreh Aghdashloo as Nadereh "Nadi" Behrani
Ron Eldard as Lester Burdon
Frances Fisher as Connie Walsh
Jonathan Ahdout as Esmail Behrani
Kim Dickens as Carol Burdon
Carlos Gómez as Lieutenant Alvarez
Navi Rawat as Soraya Behrani
Shohreh Aghdashloo was a respected actress in Iran before emigrating to the United States. When the film roles offered to her were limited to terrorists and other assorted villains, she turned to a career in the theatre. This film marked her return to the screen after nearly two decades.
Jonathan Ahdout, whose previous acting experience was limited to school plays, was cast as Esmail Behrani two days prior to the start of filming. His original audition had not impressed Vadim Perelman, but when he began to have doubts about the actor he ultimately had hired, he reviewed the audition tapes and saw something in Ahdout's performance he felt he previously had overlooked. He called him back and had him meet and perform with Aghdashloo. The chemistry between them convinced Perelman the boy was right for the part.
An original soundtrack album, featuring James Horner's film score, was released by Varèse Sarabande.
The film received positive reviews from critics. Based on 177 reviews collected by the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 75% of critics gave House of Sand and Fog a positive review (132 "Fresh"; 45 "Rotten"), with an average rating of 7.1/10. On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 71 out of 100, sampled from 41 critics' reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
In his review in The New York Times, A. O. Scott called the film "an impressively self-assured directing debut" and added, "[it] is the nearly flawless execution of a deeply flawed premise. Mr. Perelman inadvertently exposes the inconsistencies in Mr. Dubus's novel even as he comes very close to overcoming them ... the conflict between Kathy and Behrani arises from a sin so trivial as to be almost comical ... and every stage of its escalation seems determined less by the psychology of the characters than by the forced, schematic logic of the story. You feel the heavy, implacable force of the narrative without quite believing it."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "Here is a film that seizes us with its first scene and never lets go, and we feel sympathy all the way through for everyone in it ... it stands with integrity and breaks our hearts." Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly rated the film B- with the comment, "[it] has its pretensions, but mostly it's a vigorous and bracingly acted melodrama spun off from a situation that's pure human-thriller catnip ... though I do wish that the movie didn't spiral into the most shocking of tragedies."
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone rated it three out of a possible four stars and added, "Before it runs off course into excess, this brilliantly acted film version of the 1999 novel by Andre Dubus III moves with a stabbing urgency ... Vadim Perelman ... makes a smashing debut in features ... Prepare for an emotional wipeout." In The New Yorker, David Denby wrote: "Ben Kingsley ... [is] the only entertainment in this noble pool of despair ... Vadim Perelman ... produces scenes of great intensity, but he doesn't capture the colloquial ease and humor of American life."
On Salon.com, Andrew O'Hehir said it "features an astonishing pair of lead performances and one of this year's most impressive directing debuts." Channel 4 said, "There's nothing wrong in funneling operatic tragedy through seemingly mundane domestic battles, but the way events escalate here feels deeply fraudulent ... heavy-handed allegory and symbolism wait at every turn ... though relentlessly downbeat, this is so overwrought, underdeveloped and ham-fisted that it's more unintentionally comic than genuinely tragic."
The film began a limited release in the United States on December 19, 2003 and opened at #43, grossing $45,572 in its opening weekend. It eventually grossed $13,040,288 in North America and $3,902,507 in other territories for a worldwide total of $16,942,795. Its budget was $16.5 million.Academy Award for Best Actor (Ben Kingsley, nominee)
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Shohreh Aghdashloo, nominee)
Academy Award for Best Original Score (nominee)
Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama (Kingsley, nominee)
Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role (Kingsley, nominee)
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress (Shohreh Aghdashloo, winner)
National Board of Review Award for Best Directorial Debut (winner)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actress (Aghdashloo, winner)
Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female (Aghdashloo, winner)
Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor (Kingsley, nominee)
Independent Spirit Award for Best First Film (nominee)
Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Actor (Kingsley, nominee)
Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress (Jennifer Connelly, nominee)
Phoenix Film Critics Society Award for Best Actor (Kingsley, winner)
Phoenix Film Critics Society Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (nominee)
Phoenix Film Critics Society Award for Breakout Director of the Year (nominee)
Satellite Award for Best Editing (Lisa Zeno Churgin, nominee)