Pick your poison

“House of Sand and Fog” interrogates gender and race in a particularly non-Hollywood fashion.

Tom Horgen

The screenplay for the “House of Sand and Fog” is an impassioned one, but it becomes so intoxicated with its own unbridled intensity that it can’t see the ridiculousness it falls into in its final act.

Up until that moment in the film – when an innocent character is killed – when everything switches to extreme spectacle, it was a smart, provocative movie.

Based on a popular novel by Andre Dubus III, the film focuses on two characters. There’s the emotionally spent Kathy, played by Jennifer Connelly, who’s just lost her house to the government. Kathy’s fate becomes intertwined with Behrani, played by Ben Kingsley, a retired Iranian colonel who works a number of menial jobs to keep his wife and son believing that they are still a part of the middle class. Behrani buys the seized house in an auction in hopes of turning a profit, but Kathy, drunk with rage, is willing to do anything to get it back.

The film excels initially because it is using two protagonists in a great game of identification. As it toys with racial and gender politics, we are meant to choose between which of the two we will identify with and root for. And since both characters are high-strung and mercurial it’s a jolting exercise.

A harrowing confrontation between Kathy’s new boyfriend, a misguided sheriff’s deputy, and Behrani illustrates the film’s cleverness. The scene, which takes place in the embattled house, finds the deputy threatening Behrani with faux deportation if he doesn’t relinquish his new home. At first we are enraged at the cop’s racist threat and angry with Kathy for going along with it. But in the following scene, Behrani, enraged himself, strikes his wife when she asks for the meaning of the confrontation. Thus, our anger at Kathy immediately switches to Behrani.

Unfortunately, this fascinating tug-of-war, which we rarely see in Hollywood films, is abruptly stomped out when the movie hits its excessive final act.

While the film had been piling on the misfortune for its characters, the final act goes beyond Greek tragedy and into never-ending torture. It’s like watching a glossy “Dancer in the Dark” and every other morbid Lars von Trier film at the same time.

But there’s no purpose to the tragedy. The film’s excess, from the plot itself to the overblown, melodramatic score, seems like tragedy for the sake of tragedy.

Interestingly, the film’s acting is so superb that you can’t help but stay with these characters as they are relentlessly manhandled by the film’s punishing script. The beatings persist until no one is left standing. The performances are so gripping that you might not recognize the absurdity of the final act until it’s already over.

It is important to recognize this eventual regression. We should question why such an intelligent film would choose to throw its evocative qualities away for a hyper-melodramatic finale that nearly overshadows everything that came before it. Simply put, “House of Sand and Fog” got so caught up in its web of heightened emotion that it lost control.