Donald Sutherland, Diane Lane, Anton Yelchin, Kristen Stewart and Chris Evans star in director Griffin Dunne's Fierce People, an uneven look at the malevolent underpinnings of high society. Despite strong performances and some sharp humor, Fierce People, based on a novel by Dirk Wittenborn, gets sucked into its own pretense, leaving a sour taste that is difficult to shake.
Finn Earl (Yelchin) wanted to spend the summer in the field studying South American Ishkanani Indians with his absentee father. Instead, he is busted after buying cocaine for his promiscuous mother Liz (Lane), and must accompany her to the estate of rich friend Ogden (Sutherland) while she attempts to get her life in order. Enchanted by his father's field studies, Finn decides to analyze the niceties of Ogden's family, and uncovers some concerning characters.
The first half of Fierce People works well enough, unspooling as a witty if somewhat pretentious condemnation of wealth and excess in the tone of Running With Scissors. It is after the halfway point that the film veers toward the unpleasant and becomes grating, buckling under the weight of its high-minded intentions. Ogden is a decent enough guy, but the pawns on his chessboard are crass and entitled. They are also easy targets and nothing we have not seen before. The filmmakers obviously intended to lambaste the perceived sins of our country's wealthy ruling class - something made abundantly clear in the film's behind-the-scenes documentary - but it all feels a bit trite. It's not ponies or Hamptons vacation homes that are the problem, it's the holier-than-thou attitude, and the filmmakers should have focused more on the latter.
Completed way back in 2005, Fierce People's three youngest stars were hardly household names at the time, and the film made less than $100,000 at the U.S. box office. Sutherland and Lane clearly have fun with the material, and it is nice to see Lane doing something outside her typical range. Yelchin, playing Finn almost exactly as he did the titular character in 2007's superior Charlie Bartlett, is enthusiastic but kind of smug. Stewart, whose acting ability seems to vary widely from film to film, bites her lip a lot while playing Ogden's granddaughter Maya, who falls for Finn. Evans has turned in some solid performances as of late, and he shows some early promise as Maya's brother Bryce, a decidedly unsettling character.
Fierce People is far from terrible. It is largely well-acted and often funny, and the concept of Finn's field study is used well throughout. Unfortunately, it also feels preachy, and its second-half diversion into ugliness rings false. Fierce People is an intriguing rental, but offers little to warrant repeat viewings.
Although Fierce People has been available on DVD since 2008, it appears Lionsgate has reworked the artwork to more prominently feature Kristen Stewart.
After Dark Films presents Fierce People via Lionsgate in a solid if unremarkable anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer. Colors are strong, and some nice detail is present, especially in close-ups. Minor edge enhancement and noise pop up occasionally around scenery, and black levels could be deeper. The film is well-shot, and the transfer is certainly adequate.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital track is similarly acceptable, balancing dialogue, score and effects well in most scenes. In a very few scenes dialogue seems slightly muffled, though this may be the fault of the production and not the soundtrack. Outdoor ambiance and effects from the film's few action-oriented scenes make their way to the surrounds. A 2.0 track and English and Spanish subtitles are also available.
A couple of extras complement the film, including a commentary from director Dunne, in which he discusses criticism of the film, the technical aspects of the production and the challenges of placing young actors in sexually charged scenes. Breaking Down the Tribe (14:25) is the film's making-of, and, while it features some interesting opining from the actors, is even more trite than the film. Three deleted scenes (3:50), including an inferior alternate ending, round out the extras.
Fierce People wants to be an astute cautionary tale about the dangers of wealth and self-satisfaction, but fails to live up to its lofty goals. The film's wiseass main character grows less likable as the narrative progresses, and Fierce People abandons its quirky opening for a less satisfying dip into the dark side of wealth. Still, fans of the cast and Juno-esque comedies may want to Rent It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.