[Beware of massive spoilers for Fierce People, like you give a shit anyway]
I think it's safe to say that as an actor, at least among Serious Film Types, Griffin Dunne is somewhat beloved. Or at any rate very much liked. This is all on a sort of cult level, but let's face it, it almost always is. On the basis of just two films, both of which exist in universal terms on that same cult level, those films being John Landis's An American Werewolf in London and Martin Scorsese's After Hours, Dunne, as an actor, has been able to cement his place. And good on him, because they're both wonderful performances. Dunne's delivery of the line "David! You're hurting my feelings!" in An American Werewolf in London was one of my favorite bits from that film when I was a kid, and remains so to this day. It's the way his character Jack (a rotting corpse by this point in the film) holds onto his naked but not, in this case, especially ostentatious sarcasm even in the midst of his state of undead horror that naturally appealed to my younger self, and I'd wager most people's younger selves, but even getting over that part it's just funny, it's a funny line and Dunne gives it the funniest reading possible. This all somehow helps sell the pity we must feel for Jack, and the other werewolf victims, which in turn allows the film to walk the very thin tightrope it ultimately succeeds in walking. And I've barely even mentioned After Hours, a great, 90 minute surreal Martin Scorsese comedy that Dunne carries on his shoulders. This is almost undefinable, but in that film the idea is for Dunne to play an everyman, but only sort of, and Dunne is the essence of an everyman who is nevertheless naturally specific and peculiar and not actually an everyman even while he's being one.
So he's great! As an actor! As a director, well, who among us can say? Dunne has been a director only sporadically, and he came to it late, directing his first feature, Addicted to Love, a romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick, in 1997. Since then he's directed four more features, as well as episodes of various TV shows, but I'd never seen any of it until yesterday when I watched, for I was called upon to do so, Fierce People, Dunne's comedy/drama/thriller(!?) from 2005. This is a film about which I can at least say this: it would be impossible to watch the first fifteen minutes of Fierce People and then correctly predict what happens in the last fifteen. Or maybe even the first twenty-five minutes and the last twenty-five. It's a fairly bonkers piece of work, a film that to some degree you'd have to acknowledge as ambitious, but, as is often the case, with ambition comes misguidedness, tone deafness, ridiculousness. You have to know what you're doing, in other words, though I suppose a certain heedlessness is desirable, too. I don't know. I don't even known if what we're dealing with in Fierce People is negligent heedlessness or outright stupidity.
Whatever the case may be, I suspect that Dirk Wittenborn is largely to blame. The temptation is to say "mostly to blame," but since I have not read Wittenborn's original novel Fierce People, on which the film is based (a film for which Wittenborn himself did in fact write the screenplay, as well as serve as a producer), and since slavishly faithful to that novel and script though he may or may not have been, Griffin Dunne is still the guy at the wheel here, and it's supposed to be up to him how much of that source material is going to be chucked overboard. But all of this is verging on speculation on my part, so it's best to to drop that and explain what the film Fierce People is about. It's about this young guy played by Anton Yelchin named Finn Earl who...wait a second, come back. Named Finn Earl whose mother Liz (Diane Lane) is a booze-and-drug-addicted masseuse. His father is a famous anthropologist named Fox Blanchard who...hold on a minute, would you? Named Fox Blanchard, who we see via "archival footage" played by Dirk Wittenborn himself. Blanchard made a famous documentary about an especially fierce (have you clued into anything significant yet?) native tribe of South America; Finn has long been fascinated by this film, and his father, whom he's never met. One summer, all the ducks have lined up and it looks like Finn is going to get to travel to South America and visit his dad when he gets busted attempting to procure drugs for his mom. This incident urges Liz to clean up her act, and legally and financially the two of them are rescued by a very wealthy benefactor, one of Liz's clients, named Ogden Osbourne...I wish you'd at least hear me out.
Osbourne (Donald Sutherland) lives on a vast expanse of land, in a massive estate, on the grounds of all of which live many people, family and employees and the families of employees, and he offers one of the homes to Liz and Finn. Liz accepts, the idea being that she's going to be working for him as his personal and exclusive masseuse. Finn, meanwhile, is free to essentially gallivant about in various teenager ways, meeting along the way such eccentric characters as Jilly (Paz de la Huerta), his and Liz's teenage maid; Maya Langley (Kristen Stewart) and her brother Bryce (Chris Evans), two of Osbourne's grandchildren; and Whitney (Jeff Westmoreland), a mentally handicapped man who exists in the film to be somehow both enigmatic and completely ignored, to provide the solution to the film's big mystery in the only way a mentally handicapped person in a film can do such a thing, which is to say "poignantly," and to be referred to by Finn, our hero, as a "retard," though the effect this has on the story as a whole was perhaps unintended by the filmmakers. Then again, Finn is a genuine little shit to his mom regarding her attempts to get sober (not, please note, regarding her being a cokehead at the time when she was a cokehead), and we're evidently meant to read this as an example of a refreshingly idiosyncratic and loving mother-son relationship, so who the hell knows what Dunne and Wittenborn thought they were up to?
Finn falls in love with Maya and becomes good pals with Bryce. And this kid, this Bryce, he's a real wild card: born rich but disdainful of the wealthy hypocrites who surround him, he's capable of tearing a person to shreds with his words, you see, but he's usually doing that to rich assholes so we admire him. These relationships, as well as Liz's romance with a local doctor (Christopher Shyer) known to the Osbourne family and how this is viewed by Osbourne himself, form the crux of the film's loose plot. The idea is really to, well, listen, I'm just going to say it straight, to tear the lid off the lives of the super rich in America and to contrast them with crazy South American natives -- please notice how intricately the theme of "tribes" and "tribalism" is woven throughout Fierce People by having the word "tribe" repeated somewhere in the neighborhood of every sixth word -- so that we might finally ask the question who, really, are the "crazy natives?" Hence that title, Crazy Natives.
As a film, as, you know, cinema, Fierce People is undistinguished apart from the fact that it feels slightly out of time, though I guess it wasn't. I looked up what other films came out in 2005, to see if they all seemed like they should have come out in 1997, and in fact many did. White Noise and Memoirs of a Geisha and so forth. There was also Munich, which is a film that kind of acts as part of the transition to 2007, which historically now seems like a big deal, but anyhow the point is, in Hollywood the impulse was to cling to something very basic, visually. Fierce People belongs to "The Cinema of Cars Pulling Up in Front of Houses," preferably doing so just as the opening credits end. Which means that the structure of the film's first half or so is neatly mapped out: Something Has Happened, We Must Leave; Here is a Place We Can Go; Here We Are: Oh Boy This is a Weird Place. It's all very easy. You'd have to imagine that for Dirk Wittenborn there's an autobiographical element, as he himself didn't come from money but has, from what I've gathered, spent his life around it. On the website for his most recent book, called The Social Climber's Bible, written with Johnson & Johnson heiress Jazz Johnson, and by the way is anybody else getting tired yet?, Wittenborn describes himself as an outsider (with Johnson being the insider) in relation to the world of the super-rich. That he was able to channel this sense of himself into a pure Hollywood formula is, I don't know what, but it's something, of that I'm almost sure.
Dunne, on the other hand, grew up an insider. His father was Dominick Dunne, best-selling author (and frequent chronicler of high society murder cases), he's the nephew of John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, and while there was obviously a more literary bent to the high-end life in which he was raised, it was nevertheless relatively high-end. From that perspective, Fierce People comes off as a piece of self-examination and attempt to tear down from the inside. And while I don't believe that having money, even being born into money, which is the secular world's version of Original Sin, is a bad thing, I think that as long as we all agree that examining one's life is a good idea, we can also agree that examining one's moneyed life is maybe an extra good idea. So okay. Now what? A Car Pulls Up in Front of a House...
And then after that, eventually, Fierce People goes totally bugshit. Spoiling the plot of Fierce People wouldn't bother me too terribly much -- my only reservation is how much detail do I want to go into. In other words, how much of my own time do I want to spend on this? I guess I'll cut to the chase and say that after a while the fun times Finn has been smugly enjoying begin to sour, and somebody beats him up and rapes him. Who I ask you is the real fierce people and whatnot. Now it's a mystery thriller, this film, although figuring out who did this is probably not so tough. Because the film keeps the identity from the viewer, you're probably not going to think "I bet it's the guy everybody already hates!" And it isn't. In fact I'll tell you who it is, it's Bryce, the Chris Evans guy, the guy who was maybe a little too wild. His reasons for raping Finn are somewhat less clear than his reasons for murdering Osbourne -- by the way, he murders Osbourne -- but we have to get across to the viewer that frankly when you think about it? These super rich people? They're pretty twisted. And also? The South American natives? Even though we judge them? And think that we're better than them? We're really not. And rich people are probably the least better than them than anybody. If you don't believe me, what about that one guy who raped that other guy in Fierce People.
Dunne's work as a director of suspense sequences and fight scenes is largely of the template variety. If Fierce People becomes weird, that's only because the story is uncontrolled loony toons -- as a film it remains leaden. Which helps to make it weirder, I guess, but not in any way that's interesting. The film goes where it goes because I think Wittenborn didn't believe readers or film audiences would hang around to watch his weak-ass anthropology pun unless things turned violent at some point. But in the end we know who are the real fierce peoples of the world, and everything is good again.
This post has been part of The White Elephant Blogathon hosted this year by Philip Tatler at his blog Diary of a Country Pickpocket.