In House of Sand and Fog (2003), Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a young, recovering addict, loses a house she inherited from her father because she's too depressed to open her mail and so doesn't see a final demand for taxes (which turn out to have been improperly assessed). Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an Iranian immigrant who was a military muck-a-muck under the Shah but who now works on a road crew in the U.S., buys the house cheap from the government in order to sell it dear and get back on an upper-class, if commercial, footing. Kathy and her attorney make it known to Behrani how much the house means to her and how unjust its seizure was in the first place, but Behrani won't sell it back. Prosperity is too essential to Behrani's dignity, especially since he's been pretending all along to be well-off to his daughter's in-laws. Kathy manages to get a disaffected married cop on her side; the cop then tries to get rough with Behrani and things get fatally out of hand. Behrani's son is accidentally killed, which drives him to kill his own wife and then himself.
House of Sand and Fog attempts to be very exact about the characters' motivations, and there's one good, focused moment at a candlelight dinner with the cop when Kathy, defying the consequences, chooses to start drinking again. The dramatic scheme is to show how two people who are set on what they want intersect "tragically," but what we see is a group of characters who act as wrongheadedly and intransigently as imaginable. The movie doesn't sustain its aspirations to tragedy because there's no vision of a possible better outcome that Kathy and Behrani are fated by some mysterious law or force to miss. The foreseeability of the consequences in House of Sand and Fog is not the same as the quality of inevitability ascribed to tragedy. Similarly, Kathy and Behrani lack the heroic dimensions of tragic protagonists, but they're not ironic-tragic protagonists, either, because no irony is intended. Which is not to say you may not have an ironic reaction to the movie. Kingsley's exquisitely careful "accent" performance, in particular, struck me as one of the funniest impersonations Robin Williams has ever done.
House of Sand and Fog's tragic air is thus a matter of affectation more than dramatic structure. If this happened to people I knew I would think: What did they expect? But then it couldn't happen to people you know because the premise doesn't make sense. As I recall, Kathy owes the county about $500 in business, not property, taxes and the house is sold for around $42,000 to Behrani. Who pocketed the difference? Wouldn't the county be more likely to freeze her bank account (she's employed, self-punishingly, as a house-cleaner) or seize her car or other property closer in value to $500? (It would save them the trouble and cost of the seizure, eviction, and sale, after all.) This means that it isn't only the characters who behave unreasonably in every way at every turn, it's the legal system and the agencies of the government, too, and it's just too much. The movie's pessimistic vision doesn't hold because the elements feel so determinedly selected to ensure the bad outcome. I felt about the moviemakers the way I feel about people who are sulking--If they want to be in a bad mood and spoil their day I can't stop them.