Judge Clark Douglas is a fierce person...well, that's what he'd like you to believe.
Our review of Fierce People, published September 8th, 2010, is also available.
Nothing is more savage than high society.
"Fuck! Kill! Fuck! Kill! Fuck! Kill! Fuck! Kill!"—A group of coked-out teenagers in Fierce People
Facts of the Case
The year is 1980, the age of cocaine. Liz (Diane Lane, Unfaithful) is one of the many people addicted to the substance, and she asks her teenage son Finn (Anton Yelchin, Alpha Dog) to purchase some for her. Poor Finn is busted while attempting to make the purchase, thus ruining his chances of being able to take a much-awaited trip to meet his estranged anthropologist father in Africa. Finn's father is an expert on various primitive tribes, and Finn has also become obsessed by the subject. He is quite frustrated that he will not be able to do an in-depth study of a native tribe, but he soon finds himself in the midst of a group of equally fascinating and dangerous people.
Liz and Finn are invited to move in with one of Liz's "old friends," an extraordinarily wealthy man named Ogden C. Osborne (Donald Sutherland, Don't Look Now). In their lavish new environment, Liz begins to sober up while Finn falls in love with Osborne's attractive granddaughter (Kristen Stewart, Panic Room). The new life seems wonderful at first, but Liz and Finn are soon going to discover that enjoying this world of wealth comes with a very high price tag. Welcome to one of the most dangerous tribes of Fierce People.
From Dangerous Liaisons to Eyes Wide Shut to Wall Street to The Nanny Diaries, films about the various forms of savagery within the realm of the upper class have been a popular genre. Those outside that lifestyle enjoy seeing the privilege punished, and those within that lifestyle seem to enjoy seeing themselves punished. Everybody wins, I suppose. Fierce People attempts to offer a criticism of the wealthy in a more explicit manner by making numerous direct comparisons to the lifestyles of the native tribes (seen in videos made by Finn's father). It sounds like an interesting concept, certainly. It's not hard to imagine how the psychological and financial power struggles within the upper class could be used as a parallel to the actions of primitive tribes.
Unfortunately, Fierce People is not interested in something along those lines. It attempts to make its points in a much more forceful and explicit manner. The film informs us that when a member of a (fictional) native tribe is in a struggle with someone else, that tribesman will attempt to rape and/or murder their rival. Likewise, when a member of this upper-class "tribe" is in a struggle with someone else, this film suggests that rape and/or murder will take place. Not psychological, not financial, not anything metaphorical…actual rape and murder. This literal-minded approach to the story is disappointingly obvious.
Even if screenwriter Dirk Wittenborn (who also wrote the novel this film is based on) and director Griffin Dunne (Practical Magic) had managed to sell the idea that such things actually do take place on a regular basis, the point is still much too belabored. On every possible occasion, the film attempts to make out blatant comparisons between the two savage worlds. It even goes so far as to make key characters in the film wear and/or use various tribal artifacts, in order to help us know who is supposed to be who in this alternate universe. It's simply bad execution of a concept that wasn't very good to begin with.
The film also doesn't quite manage to convince us of Ogden C. Osborne's wealth with the locations it provides. Dunne explains that the film had a small budget, and that it was difficult to find the lavish locations required. He tries to compensate by using as many visual tricks as possible, but he falls just a little short. The movie feels too cramped; the locations seem to bear too little similarity to each other.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even if the story isn't very good, the cast most certainly is. Diane Lane gives a solid performance in her role as Liz, and keeps us guessing about the character by providing new elements with each scene. Donald Sutherland is just splendid as the wealthy Osborne…he is more or less playing the same role that he plays in the television show Dirty Sexy Money, though this film came considerably before (it was actually finished in 2005 but didn't get a theatrical release until 2007). The young cast fares quite well, also. Yelchin is convincing and sympathetic in the lead role, Chris Evans does an interesting alternate version of his Ivy League character from The Nanny Diaries, and Kristen Stewart is quite likable as Finn's girlfriend.
The DVD also provides a reasonably engaging batch of bonus features. A 14-minute "making-of" featurette is too brief, but it is full of interesting thoughts on the film from the cast and crew, by no means a standard fluff piece. Three deleted scenes are of some interest, particularly an alternate ending of sorts that perhaps would have given too much closure to the film. Finally, a commentary from director Griffin Dunne is dry and low-key, but Dunne does offer some compelling stories about making the movie. Anton Yelchin was only 15 when the movie was shot, and Dunne talks about the various challenges that come with making a movie involving sex, drugs, rape, and murder when you have a minor in the lead role. The DVD transfer is also quite solid, presenting a broad range of color and visual styles with clarity. The sound can be a little on the obnoxious side at times, particularly Nick Laird-Clowes' obtrusive score, but it's all presented with sharp Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track.
Much as I wanted to like this film (because I certainly like this cast), I'm afraid I can't really recommend it. It's a very heavy-handed film that is simply unable to find a way to make its difficult premise work. If you're a diehard fan of Lane or Sutherland, or if you particularly enjoy films that portray wealthy people as evil monsters, give this one a rent. Everyone else should just watch Dirty Sexy Money, a show about spoiled rich people that is no more insightful but a whole lot more fun.
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Scales of Justice
• "Breaking Down the Tribe"
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