Review: Oliver Stone's 'Savages' is Disappointing in Interesting Ways
by Jeremy Kirk
July 6, 2012
Judging by Oliver Stone's films, it's not surprising that Savages isn't a honed, straightforward story. It's broad, sweeping across its drug-filled landscape like John Ford shooting deserts, and the garish cast of characters never ceases to intrigue. But something this expansive needs a focused voice, a firmer through-line that works regardless if it's trying to entertain or educate. Feeling muddied early on, it becomes a jumbled bag of half-developed ideas building to a climax that's more headscratcher than crowd pleaser. To put it bluntly - pun intended - Savages leaves you in a haze with only a few positive side effects.
Stone, along with fellow screenwriters Shane Salerno and Don Winslow - The film is based on Winslow's novel - center their story on O, played by Blake Liveley, a California girl who shares her time with both best friends Chon and Ben, played by Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson. O is their shared girlfriend, and, being the highly successful but independently established pot dealers that they are, the three live a luxurious life in Laguna Beach. However, when Chon and Ben choose not to deal with a Mexican cartel that's expanding its business North, O is taken hostage. The two drug dealers are forced to do business with the head of the cartel, played by Salma Hayek, and her sadistic right-hand man, played by Benicio Del Toro, if they ever want to see O alive again.
That "focused voice" tries to come in the film, O herself providing voice-over narration that begins right from scene one and springs up time and time again to introduce us to new characters or new ideas about the characters we've already seen. Savages is better suited for this, especially when you consider showing us instead of telling us would add another hour to a run-time that's already too big for its britches. Through O, we're introduced to Chon and Ben and the differing roles they play in this business of theirs. Chon is an Iraq war vet who provides the muscle. Ben is a college grad who provides the brains. We don't then need her telling us about secondary and even tertiary characters, some of whom don't play that big of a role in the story, others who O shouldn't have this much information on. Savages plays more like a novel at times, giving us superfluous details on what is already a complex system of people, places, and events.
Stone's direction offers the focus the story very much needs, opting for a narrower range of styles and techniques than we've previously seen the director take. At times it feels like Oliver Stone Lite, but he never loses his grip on formulating interesting and often energetic shots and sequences. Stone works with cinematographer Daniel Mindel here for the first time, and the former director of photography on Domino seems to carry more than a few tricks over from his days of working with Tony Scott. Savages isn't as hyperstylized as anything Scott has done recently, but the influence he had on the film's cinematographer doesn't go unnoticed.
The same can't be said for the film's leads. Kitsch, Johnson, and Lively all help drive the film forward in its first half, dealing with the cartel and a dirty DEA agent, played by John Travolta, alike. There's an energy on screen when all three are together, a genuine sense that all three of them care for each other and would do anything to ensure the safety of the others. It's them against the world, and once that trinity is broken up, the wheels begin moving a little slower, eventually grinding to a halt once the film's one, great action sequence has come and gone. Once the palpable momentum disappears, seemingly so too does Kitsch. The John Carter and Battleship star - Not a good year for him unfortunately - is present throughout the rest of the film, but his presence and his effectiveness on Savages' story becomes lost in the shuffle of all of the film's other characters.
Johnson is chief among these. It's Ben who has the biggest arc in the film, not wanting to deal in violence though he knows it's sometimes necessary, but it's his turn towards Chon's darker, grittier side of handling things that becomes Savages' central core. Other standouts include Del Toro, Hayek, and Travolta. Any time any of these two are on screen together, Savages feeds on the electricity they each bring to the table, jumping back up into something more intense than the deal-breaking, side-swapping melodrama it ultimately becomes. Salma Hayek is a powerhouse in Savages, making the female antagonist in the film all the more menacing with every inch of scenery she decides to gnaw on. Del Toro is satisfactorily vicious. Travolta is brazenly gaudy, but what else would you expect from him? While Savages' main three subside into the woodwork of convoluted plot points, it's Hayek, Del Toro, and Travolta that keep grabbing your interest all the way to the film's climactic action sequence.
Speaking of which, the film, for all of its complexity and muddled storytelling, still holds a charge until that climax hits. What should be an all-out blockbuster of an action sequence begins fizzling as soon as you figure out precisely where it's headed. The action is pedestrian and as anticlimactic as it can be, but then Savages - Or I should say Savages' screenwriters - makes a decision, introduces a plot device that has no set-up, no reason for existing, and very little payoff. It feels like Stone and his fellow writers wanted their cake but wanted to eat it too, and this completely drops the bottom out of Savages' final moments, leaving little else but an empty feeling once the closing credits begin to roll.
Up until that point, Savages is neither great nor horrendous, a perfectly lined up, middle-of-the-road crime drama with a batch of really effective side characters filled out by some outstanding actors. All of that steam the film had been building on gets let out in the most unimpressive of ways, but don't worry. Blake Lively is always there to talk us through it. Savages won't go down as Oliver Stone's best or worst, nowhere near either ends of that spectrum. However, the frustration that remains, that feeling that Savages could have been an incredibly powerful yet sexy action movie is an itch that can't help but be scratched. It's not a great Oliver Stone fix, but it'll do until the next one comes along.
Jeremy's Rating: 6 out of 10