It's rare that a film as initially unfocused and scattershot as Griffin Dunne's mock-ethnographic "Fierce People" would halfway redeem itself through the introduction of an anal rape/revenge narrative--but here we have it. Discussion of redemption in this case is tricky--it's not as if the two halves of this decidedly odd film display a marked difference in filmmaking and performance quality, but the whole enterprise does become a much more energized affair once the crime has been committed. However, my positive reaction to the "added value" Dunne serves up in "Fierce People"'s latter portions may have less to do with its narrative necessity than with the extra oomph of purpose it lends a movie that seems content for its first hour to merely drift. That or, perhaps the sheer novelty factor of finding such a bizarre story strand grafted into a generally conventional and familiar work.
Existing in some blighted nether region between Harmony Korine's planned idiocies and Wes Anderson's mannered whimsies, "Fierce People" has all of the hallmarks of that magical realist genre that finds folks of different classes forced to intermingle; here we have the working class masseuse Liz Earl (Diane Lane) and her son Finn (Anton Yelchin), who come to live at the pastoral Osborne estate populated by patriarch Ogden (grandly played by Donald Sutherland), grandson Bryce (Chris Evans), and granddaughter Maya (Kristen Stewart). Drug-addled Liz receives a wake-up call that her life's on the wrong track when Finn gets busted while scoring her some cocaine and calls in a favor with Ogden (apparently Liz provided him something of a life-saving massage a few years prior) that results in the Earls' summer-long "medical" residency at the Osborne family's sprawling manor in upstate Jersey.
By that point (about ten minutes into the film), Yelchin's uncomfortable voiceover has already cued us in to the story's interest in tribal culture clash. To drive this point fully into the ground, Finn's absent father is made an anthropologist, seen via a scratchy 16mm print of a film about a violent South American tribe that Finn watches repeatedly and comments on throughout the film. This trope is easily the worst part of "Fierce People"--imagine if Altman had killed the velocity of his upstairs-downstairs examination in "Gosford Park" by rendering its machinations completely obvious through the introduction of footage from a documentary on the British underclass. If this material (in descending order of importance: the 16mm footage, references to native tribes in general, Finn's voiceover) had been removed from the outset, Dunne might just have had a fighting chance. But as the interactions between the two families grow more complicated--Finn strikes up a relationship with Maya, begins working for Ogden alongside his mother--the tribal motif grows increasingly strained.
I haven't read Dirk Winterbottom's source text (he also adapted the screenplay), but there's a general sense of overstuff about the filmic adaptation that perhaps a book rich in incident only boiled down halfway in the process of translation. "Fierce People" makes room for narratives of sexual coming-of-age, post-drug life reclamation, class jealousy, paternity, hallucinations, and an aged castrati (yep, Sutherland, sans-testes putting off an energy that leaves the entire rest of the cast struggling to match) trying to grasp some hint of the pleasures now lost to him through different tactile means. It's all too much for one movie, but given the rarity of that, let's call it a near compliment. "Fierce People" is generally watchable, and not to be too terribly morbid, but we won't have a great like Donald Sutherland around forever, so catch him while you can.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and currently works for Magnolia Pictures.]