The Passive Protagonist in “The House of Sand and Fog”
The received wisdom is that audiences don’t like passive protagonists. Watching “The House of Sand and Fog” I was reminded of how true this is.
For a large part of the movie, Kathy (the protagonist, or one of them) is buffeted by circumstances to such an extent that I (and I don’t think I’m alone here) didn’t feel much for her, even though, objectively speaking, she is truly pathetic. I wanted to feel something. I did.
But I didn’t feel it, and I think her passivity is why. I think this took the sting out of Act III, which, had I felt more for Kathy, would have had me sobbing and keening like a motherfucker, a la “Brokeback Mountain.” The events of Act III are horrible, but without that bond with the character, it was more like watching a sad news story than watching Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist.
I’m not criticizing the moviemakers’ craftsmanship, for the writer (Vadim Perelman) of the screenplay and the writer of the novel on which it was based (Andre Dubus III) both get that Kathy appears passive. In an interview, Dubus says straight out that many readers of his book, especially women, thought Kathy was too passive. Perelman chose to make the movie reflect the book, and so Kathy ends up being less willful than most characters. It was an artistic choice.
The first shot of Kathy (other than a quick flashback) shows her in bed. She gets a call from her mother, who mentions taking it “One day at a time,” a saying associated with AA and similar substance abuse programs. We also see that something is weird with her husband—Kathy lies to her mother about where he is. Her house is a shithole, with unopened mail, chinese food containers, and dirty clothes strewn about. Clearly, Kathy is not in a good place. And it gets worse.
But she doesn’t form a plan and act on it. She lets thing happen to her. And this kind of broke the spell for me: I didn’t feel for her the way I should, given her circumstances. How could the spell have been maintained? A couple of things come to mind.
First, Kathy’s shitbird husband left her because he didn’t want children and she did. So, it’s easy to imagine a short scene in which the shitbird husband leaves her in a bad situation. It would have taken maybe 30 seconds of screen time. Second, there’s a reveal later in the movie about Kathy’s substance abuse problem. Not alcohol—but what? Crack? Heroine? Maybe a scene of her thinking about, then rejecting, her drug of choice would have been good. Clearly, she has the will to kick whatever it is she kicked. But we don’t see her kicking.
In short, a lot of the stuff that would have made me (and I think other audience members) realize that Kathy isn’t just a feather on the wind was recounted to us. It wasn’t shown. This lessens the impact, of course, because seeing is believing. Imagine the difference between a character saying, “I had a shitty childhood—my father sodomized me every night” and actually seeing a flashback of it. In “The House of Sand and Fog,” why not a couple short scenes showing that Kathy’s predicament is not (entirely) of her own making and that she can change her predicament?
While I had my Kleenex box all ready to go when I put the DVD in, I didn’t use it, and by the time I turned off the TV, I felt like I’d merely seen a train wreck, not a tragedy.