June 04, 2010

Review of Fierce People

Fierce People is a 2005 movie I watched in April. Here's the basic plot:

Fierce PeopleTrapped in his mother's Lower East Side apartment, sixteen-year-old Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin) wants nothing more than to escape New York. He wants to spend the summer in South America studying the Ishkanani Indians (called "Fierce People"), with the anthropologist father he's never met. Finn's dreams are shattered when he is arrested in a desperate effort to help his drug-dependent mother, Liz (Diane Lane), who works as a massage therapist. Determined to get their lives back on track, Liz moves the two of them into a guesthouse for the summer on the vast country estate of her ex-client, the aging aristocratic billionaire, Ogden C. Osbourne (Donald Sutherland).

In Osbourne's close world of privilege and power, Finn and Liz encounter the super rich, a tribe portrayed as fiercer and more mysterious than anything they might find in the South American jungle. (Dirk Wittenborn, the author of the novel on which the film is based, grew up a poor outsider among the super rich in an upper-crust New Jersey enclave.)

While Liz battles her substance abuse and struggles to win back her son's love and trust, Finn falls in love with Osbourne's beautiful granddaughter, Maya (Kristen Stewart). He also befriends her older brother, Bryce (Chris Evans); and wins the favor of Osbourne. When a shocking act of violence shatters Finn's ascension within the Osbourne clan, the golden promises of this lush world quickly sour. Both Finn and Liz, caught in a harrowing struggle for their dignity, discover that membership in a group comes at a steep price.
Here are some of the movie's tribal hijinks:

Fierce People

Surviving in That Rain Forest East of the Delaware River

By Stephen Holden
Until the drug bust, Finn had planned to spend the summer with his father, “the Elvis of anthropologists,” studying the Ishkanani, a primitive people in the Amazon rain forest known for their cruelty and barbarism. The intriguing conceit of “Fierce People” is that the idle superrich and the Ishkanani, whose rituals are shown on reels of film sent from South America by Finn’s father, are equally vicious.

This is a nifty idea that is laboriously overworked. As “Fierce People” nervously skitters between documentary scenes of the Ishkanani and the story of a mother and son absorbing the tribal customs of the New Jersey gentry, your instinct is throw up your hands and shout, “Enough already; we get it!”
Fierce People--Review

By Lexi FeinbergEven more tiresome are the eyebrow-raising, arbitrary things that take place in Dirk Wittenborn’s absurd script, based on his book. Finn starts dating Osbourne’s granddaughter Maya (Kristen Stewart) after getting maimed by a deer trap--a lovely way to meet a romantic prospect. When they hang out with her yuppie brother Bryce (Chris Evans) to watch one of his dad’s tribal documentaries, it turns into a dance where everyone chants “fuck and kill!” followed by, naturally, some making out. Finn and his lady get in the mood by smearing paint all over each other’s bodies--it’s just that kind of movie.Fierce People

It's just fiercely bad

By Geoff Berkshire
Skip it: Osborne is fond of saying “out of bad comes good.” That’s definitely not the case here. Originally filmed in 2004 and shelved for several years, “Fierce People” should’ve gone straight to video. Miscalculated at every level, it’s a vacant drama full of ineptly drawn characters. Things actually get worse after the first hour when a preposterous violent act sends the narrative spinning wildly out of control. Not even talented actors like Lane and Sutherland can make a difference when the material is this bad.

Catch it: For unintentional laughs. Finn’s obsession with the Amazonian Ishkanani tribe (his absent father made a documentary about them) is supposed to translate to the over-privileged world he finds himself in. It only leads to a lot of risible situations, including a particularly bad acid trip and a really creepy love scene with the very young, underwear-clad Yelchin and Stewart rubbing body paint all over each other.
Comment:  The Ishkanani are a fictional Amazonian tribe, but the filmmakers say they based the tribe on several real tribes. Obviously the Ishkanani are meant to evoke the Yanomami, whom Napoleon Chagnon labeled the "fierce people."

Let's parse the movie's use of tribal people a bit.

If the Ishkanani are based on several tribes, the filmmakers have taken the worst tribes they could find and picked the worst aspects of them. I suspect the filmmakers simply read something about the Yanomami ("Fierce People"), decided they knew all about Amazon Indians, and invented tribal scenes out of thin air. Either way, their choice is prejudiced and stereotypical.

The faux documentary scenes show bare-breasted women (naturally), a couple of Yanomami Ishkanani ambushing and killing someone in a river, and a crowd of Ishkanani chanting in some sort of incomprehensible dance. From this, the movie's characters deduce that the Indians care only about sex and death. This becomes their excuse for their bad behavior.

The faux documentaries give no hint that the Indians might have a complex religion and philosophy...extensive knowledge of the flora and fauna...tender relations between children, parents, and elders...etc. These Indians are pure savages. By emulating their worst aspects, the movie's characters reinforce this perception. "We're as savage as the worst savages in the world. You know, the barbaric, beastlike Ishkanani. They're horrible and so are we!"

Real Amazon Indians paint their bodies with symbols that have deep meanings for them. Maya and Finn smear paint on each other like kids doing fingerpainting. Real Amazon Indians take hallucinogens for profound religious reasons: to enter dream states where they can communicate with the spirits. Finn takes a hallucinogen because someone gives it to him, because it seems like a good idea, or just because.

In short, Fierce People stereotypes Indians as mindless savages. In that regard, it's not much different from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, King Kong, or countless potboilers set in primitive jungles. Few people have met an Amazon Indian, so it's movies like this that tell us what they're like.

As the reviews I've quoted indicate, most critics slammed Fierce People. As usual, the critics are right. Rob's rating: A poor 6.0 of 10.

For more on Amazon Indians, see Opera About the Yanomami, Indians in The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, and Indians in FIRST WAVE #1.

Below:  The trailer suggests that the movie can't decide whether it's a light comedy or a heavy drama. Which is part of its problem.

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