Mental Health Issues Depicted In The House of Sand and Fog Character Analysis

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This paper is a review of the 2003 movie The House of Sand and Fog that illustrates the complex relationship between a person and their home, in a distinctly tragic way. The film depicts the battle between a young woman named Kathy Nicolo (Jennifer Connally) and a struggling immigrant family over the rightful ownership of a house. The struggle between the two parties over the home ultimately leads to devastation in all of their lives. Throughout the film Kathy struggles with multiple mental health issues such as depression, substance use disorder, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. This paper describes common characteristics of these disorders and correlates them to different scenes in the movie where the disorders are depicted. The opening scene is actually the conclusion of the story. In the background, we can see police vehicles and an ambulance driving away. We then focus on Kathy, standing in the rain, appearing distraught and lost in thought.

Then, a policeman asks if she is Kathy Nicolo to which she replies “Yes”, then he asks, “Is this your house?”. A question that is left unanswered and the scene abruptly ends. Through the duration of the film the question of who rightfully owns the house is presented multiple times. This scene and the underlying question presented sets the inherent dismal tone for the rest of the film, and foreshadows the films ending which concludes with the original opening scene and finally an answer. Mental health issues depicted in The House of Sand and Fog The 2003 movie The House of Sand and Fog depicts the battle between a young woman and a struggling immigrant family over the rightful ownership of a house. The struggle between the two parties ultimately leads to devastation in all of their lives. The movie begins with a scene depicting the conclusion of the battle with the underlying question of “Is this your house?” unanswered.

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This scene sets up the underlying tragic tone of the movie. The focus of the movie is on the character Kathy Nicolo and her struggle to reclaim a house she was wrongfully evicted from due to unpaid taxes that she was wrongfully charged. The movie illustrates the complex battle between Kathy and Massoud Behrani (Ben Kingsly), the father of a struggling immigrant family that was exiled from Iran. Behrani bought the house when it was auctioned by the county, hoping to flip it for a profit, in order to continue to support his family and send his son to college. Kathy’s character portrays a depressed woman lost in a sea of changes that began with her husband leaving her several months ago. It also reveals her struggle with addiction to cigarettes and alcohol, her feelings of low self-worth, and her antisocial tendencies.

Amongst the multiple scenes with Kathy depicting symptoms of depressive disorder, other mental health issues seem to embody her character as well, these include substance use disorder and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Some of the symptoms of depressive disorder include apathy, low motivation, hypersomnia, and disruption in concentration or ability to make decisions. In the scene that illustrates how Kathy’s struggle to reclaim her house began, initially various shots of the house in disarray and ill-repair are shown highlighting her lack of motivation. She is abruptly awoken by a telephone call from her mother, with whom she briefly speaks, lies about estranged husband’s presence, and tells her that she is “really tired” and soon ends the conversation. Then, there is a knock on the door, and when she opens it the viewer can see the multitude of unopened letters, bills, and various mail that has collected on the floor.

The man at the door informs her that due to the non-payment of business taxes associated with her property that the county has filed for her eviction and will be auctioning off her property to collect the debt. Other traits of depressive disorder are low frustration tolerance, social withdrawal, and despair which Kathy displays when told she is being evicted. She states that she is “…not leaving the property” and has to be told by the policeman that if she refuses to vacate that all of her possessions will be auctioned off with the property as well. He proceeds to give her information regarding legal assistance and tells her that nothing is final, and she may be able to move back in as soon as she clears up the problem. He then tells her that in the meantime maybe she can call some friends or family and stay with them, to which she replies “There’s no one to call” which shows viewers her sense of despair and antisocial nature.

Other scenes that depict characteristics of depressive disorder include one when she states that she misses her dad and says “He worked really hard for that house. It took him 30 years to pay it off, and it took me 8 months to f*ck it up” . Another scene shows Kathy discussing with Mr. Behrani’s wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) how important the house is to her and how she was unlawfully evicted. Then Mr. Behrani returns and makes her leave. Following this intense moment of frustration and despair, Kathy makes a frantic phone call to her brother. She states several times that she needs his help and she “Just feels lost”. These scenes further illustrate feelings of sadness, emptiness, and despair.

In addition to her depressive disorder symptoms, Kathy also portrayed signs of substance use disorder, namely alcohol. Substance use disorders are defined as a problematic pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress. This includes alcohol taken in larger amounts or over longer period of time than intended, a persistent desire or unsuccessful effort to cut down or control alcohol use, and the recurrent use of alcohol resulting in failure to fulfill major role obligations. Multiple scenes in the film display these characteristics, including her mother initially asking if she was clean and to take it one day at a time, showing her ongoing struggle with addiction. Another scene is when she admits being distracted by his wine. She then explains “When I think about my sobriety, I don’t think about wine. Alcohol was never a problem” and proceeds to pour herself a glass.

She ends up sleeping with the man who has been trying to help her, even though he is married and has children. From this point forward in the movie, nearly every scene shows Kathy drinking alcohol. The culmination of her alcohol use disorder is when she buys 6 small bottles of liquor, a gas can, and matches with the intent of burning down the house. When she opens the trunk to put the gas can in it, she discovers the policeman’s gun. She then leaves the gas can behind and drives to the house. The final mental health issue depicted in the film is that of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Risk factors of suicide that are illustrated throughout the film are current psychiatric disorders, especially mood disorders, alcohol/substance abuse, hopelessness, triggering events leading to shame or despair (e.g. loss of a relationship or financial status), and access to firearms .

These precipitating factors culminate when she arrives at the house, clearly intoxicated, and picks up the gun. She then breaks down and holds the gun to her head, then puts it in her mouth, sobbing uncontrollably. Mr. Behrani hears her sobbing and rushes to her car and takes the gun from her. He then carries her inside the house. While he carries her, she states, “I’m sorry” and “I don’t want the house anymore.” He then lays her in bed and tells her she needs to sleep. She makes several pleas with him “Don’t go” . A short time later Mrs. Behrani comes and offers her warm tea to drink. When she drinks it, she immediately becomes nauseated and rushes to the bathroom to throw up. Mrs. Behrani then offers to draw her a bath, so she can clean up and relax. After getting in the tub, viewers are shown Kathy’s flat affect.

She then goes through the medicine cabinet, finds a medication bottle, and gets back into the tub. She proceeds to take all of the medication and drinks the tub water to help her swallow the pills. The scene cuts to a short time later when Mrs. Behrani finds her unresponsive in the tub. She immediately removes her from the tub and makes her throw up the pills she took. In conclusion, this film has shown that the character Kathy suffered from depressive disorder, substance use disorder, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

In the closing scene of the movie, Kathy returns to the house to find that both Mr. and Mrs. Behrani are lying in bed motionless. Mr. Behrani has clear plastic taped over his head and isn’t breathing. Kathy is sobbing and rips the plastic open with her teeth and attempts to give him CPR. When her efforts are unsuccessful she reaches for Mrs. Behrani whose hand is noticeably cold from death. She then continues to sob and lies in the fetal position between them. The final scene concludes with the original opening scene, and the policeman asking, “Are you Kathy Nicolo?” to which she replies “Yes”, he then asks, “Is this your house?” and her final statement is “No, it’s not my house” (Perelman & London, 2003). This scene, which was foreshadowed from the beginning finally answers the question that has been asked throughout the movie. In the end, all the devastation and tragedy that are felt by all parties who fought over the rightful ownership of the house, ultimately conclude with nobody claiming it.


  1. Kim, Y. J., & Burlaka, V. (2018). Gender Differences in Suicidal Behaviors: Mediation Role of Psychological Distress Between Alcohol Abuse/Dependence and Suicidal Behaviors. Archives of Suicide Research, 22(3), 405–419.
  2. Perelman, V. (Director/Producer), & London, M. (Producer). (2003). The House of Sand and Fog [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: DreamWorks SKG.
  3. Varcarolis, E. M. (2017). Essentials of psychiatric mental health nursing: A communication approach to evidence-based care. St. Louis, M

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