Much as how Inside Out is a perfect example of how one bad plot twist can ruin an otherwise good film, the 2007 sin-among-the-wealthy melodrama Fierce People shows how one good actor can partially redeem a really bad movie. That actor’s name is Donald Sutherland and Fierce People is worth seeing for one reason: his performance.
Fierce People tells the story of a teenager named Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin). As a character, Finn Earl is almost as annoying as his cutesy name. He’s a permanently sarcastic 16 year-old who goes through life with the same judgmental smirk on his face, while the whole time delivering some of the smuggest narration ever recorded for a voice over in an American film. Finn’s mother is Liz (Diane Lane), a massage therapist with a drug problem. Finn’s father is some jerk who spends all of his time in South America, studying cannibal tribes. (Actually, he’s studying a real-life Indian tribe known as the Yanomami, or the Fierce People. However, I prefer to assume that he was actually studying a cannibal tribe because that means it’s entirely possible that he was eaten at some point and therefore, Finn will never get a chance to spend any time with father. That’s the type of reaction that Finn, as a character, inspires.)
Liz and Finn are invited to spend the summer living the guesthouse of the fabulously wealthy Ogden Osburne (Donald Sutherland). At first, Finn is weary of Ogden and assumes that he must be sleeping with Liz. However, in a scene that works only because of the performance of Donald Sutherland, Ogden very graphically shows Finn why he’s not interested in having an affair with Liz. Instead, Ogden is just a nice, rich eccentric. Unfortunately, the other wealthy people who live around Ogden are not quite as nice and they soon, they start to resent the presence of Finn and his mother. Finn does manages to befriend Ogden’s decadent grandson (played by Chris Evans) and even starts a tentative romance with Ogden’s granddaughter (Kristen Stewart) but the rest of the Osburne clan is not prepared to be so accepting. Soon, the film goes from being an annoying comedy to being an annoying drama with a burst of violence and murder.
Fierce People is not a very good movie. It’s based on a novel and, even if you didn’t know that beforehand, you would guess just from the way that the film tries and fails to present a lot of themes that undoubtedly work better on the page than on the screen. The film’s attempts to draw parallels between the Yanomami and the wealthy (They’re two tribes and they’re both fierce — OH MY GOD, MIND BLOWN!) are way too obvious and the film’s sudden lurch into drama is handled rather clumsily. It’s interesting to see Chris Evans before he became Capt. America and Kristen Stewart before she became Bella (and both of them, by the way, give good performances) but Anton Yelchin’s performance as Finn alternates between being smug and being whiny. (In Yelchin’s defense, he’s developed into a pretty good actor and I loved him in Like Crazy.)
And yet, Fierce People works as an example of what a truly great actor can do with so-so material. As played by Donald Sutherland, Ogden becomes the jaded moral center of the universe. Sutherland plays Ogden with a perversely regal air and yet also makes us totally believe that Ogden actually could be helping the Earls out of the kindness of his heart. It’s a great performance and every minute that Sutherland is on screen, Fierce People works.
If the film had simply been called Fierce Ogden, it would have been a hundred times better.