Fierce People DVD Review
By Prairie Miller
This deliciously dark, cutting satire is crafted as subversive re-narration of traditional Eurocentric anthropology normally defining Third World tribes as savages rather than, say, America's rich and famous. Fierce People also derives added fascination from the fact that screenwriter Dirk Wittenborn, who adapted the film from his novel, based this both melancholy and scornful expose on his own coming of age experience living on the Johnson and Johnson palatial Jersey estate with his mother, who worked there three decades ago. The public record, or perhaps rap sheet, of that notorious dynasty is already rich with a mixture of eccentricity and tabloid-fed scandal. And Fierce People fuels that fire with the offbeat eloquence of its very personal and intimately derived sense of upstairs downstairs category of intrigue.
In Fierce People, Anton Yelchin is morose teen Finn, stuck with a dysfunctional, chronically variously diversified-inebriated mom, Liz (Diane Lane) and an idolized but absentee Harvard professor anthropologist dad. Anticipating a summer to be spent with his father on a field trip adventure in the South American rainforests, Finn is instead whisked off by mom to the decadent Jersey estate of the Osborne family, where Liz has formed a suspiciously more than health care attendant relationship with bedridden patriarch, Mr. Osborne (Donald Sutherland).
Though Finn balks at this involuntary life detour, Liz is insistent that she needs him in a parent-child role reversal, to help her go cold turkey. So to soothe his disappointment over not joining his father, Finn approaches this novelty of an experience through narrative voiceover, as a kind of tongue in cheek study of a strange and intimidating, utterly foreign leisure class tribe. But the inspired dark humor here, is that this is exactly what an encounter with those pampered alien creatures inhabiting a gilded jungle turns out to be.
Aside from a number of less interesting episodes ranging from purely conventional to bizarre in the extreme - including secret sexual liaisons with the rich and famous along with their hired help between interrupted household chores, and inter-generational familial upper crust homicidal and pathological sexual urges - Finn receives quite an eye-opening life education, primarily through his deepening friendship with a confiding and candid Osborne. The sullen and withdrawn elder contrasts with this smug elitist tribe, whose narrow range of social interaction with the rest of the world is limited to contempt for others considered beneath them, or else emotional exploitation of any of these visitors from another socioeconomic planet, as passing playthings of the rich for their quickly bored amusement.
Yelchin is an actor whose limitations as a primarily whining victim protagonist no matter what movie he's in, substantially compromise the provocative thrust of this production, not to mention grating excessively on the nerves. But Sutherland's multi-layered performance is magnificent, as a world weary tycoon utterly forthright yet unconscious and lacking in remorse in his confessions to the boy, of the unscrupulous historical origins of an obscene affluence in their forbears' lucrative abuse of child labor in the coal mines and the criminal defrauding of economic competitors grabbing for vast fortunes. Which essentially puts all the callousness and cruelty amid paradoxical lavish splendor that he's experienced, into transformative, raw perspective for the impressionable and vulnerable youth who discovers simply that, 'we are the sum of all the people we've ever met,' for better or far, far worse.
Lionsgate Films Home Entertainment
3 1/2 stars
DVD Features: Audio Commentary: Director, Griffin Dunne; Deleted Scenes; Featurette: Breaking Down the Tribe.
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