As a Hollywood director, Oliver Stone has earned a reputation for his interest in tackling uncomfortable (World Trade Center) and downright controversial (W.) subject matter. While not every film strikes a good balance between provocativeness and overall execution (Alexander), many of Stone’s films are, at the very least, memorable, and often succeed at delivering a unique – as well as powerful – look at broken characters and contentious topics that most filmmakers wouldn’t bother to touch.
Following on the heels of his Wall Street sequel Money Never Sleeps, Stone directs Savages – an adaptation of Don Winslow’s novel of the same name about a pair of Southern California Marijuana growers who end up on the wrong (i.e. violent) side of a Mexican drug cartel. Does Stone successfully present another challenging story for moviegoers, as well as convincing characters capable of justifying the copious amount of onscreen bloodshed?
Fortunately, Savages doesn’t get lost in its own violence too often and keeps the moment-to-moment drama focused on a cast of (mostly) interesting and multifaceted characters. Some of the players don’t get much (or any) development, and there are times where the film throws out disturbing story beats without paying them off (or worse yet, making sense of their effect on the characters, but Savages still offers a satisfying narrative full of competing motives and enjoyable conflict. The movie isn’t going to be for the faint of heart (it is uncompromising in its violence), but unlike a lot of blood-over-substance drama offerings, Stone’s latest film is attempting to get at something deeper – even if it sometimes misses the mark.
The Savages story is unlikely to draw in many unsuspecting filmgoers looking for a lighthearted affair, as the movie’s trailer spells out the core narrative pretty clearly. Indie marijuana kings, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), live happy with the free-spirited love of both their lives, O (Blake Lively), in Laguna Beach – until an aggressive Mexican drug cartel moves in on their turf. Faced with either joining the cartel (meaning they’d be working for it) or cashing in their operation and running away, Ben (a buddist pacifist) and Chon (an tortured Iraq veteran) choose to grab O and lay low for a while. Unfortunately, before the trio can escape, O is taken hostage by Lado (Benicio Del Toro), a merciless gun-for-hire working under cartel head Elena (Salma Hayek), and she becomes a pawn used to coerce Ben and Chon into agreeing to the cartel’s terms. The pair agree that the only way to get O back alive is to go head-to-head with Elena and Lado – resulting in routinely compromised integrity and a trail of bloodshed along the way.
It’s a believable enough setup, if viewers can accept some of the core character dynamics established in the film’s first act – specifically the open relationship between O, Ben, and Chon. In a cast full of intriguing characters, the three leads are actually one of the less-compelling elements of the film, as the movie doesn’t do a particularly great job of setting up Ben and Chon’s open sharing of O -not to mention, their ardent dedication to getting her back by any means necessary. It’s not that an open three-way relationship can’t work on film; however, in Savages, the dynamic is reduced to very basic and thin motivations, making O more of a MacGuffin than an actual person. Similarly, Chon remains almost entirely the same person he was from the outset: an aggressive “muscle” who is merely responding to the events around him; conversely, the story routinely puts Ben in difficult and self-defining moments that significantly disrupt his peace-loving mindset. As a result, Ben’s transformation (thanks to a solid performance from Johnson) is one of the better aspects of the film, and without it, Savages would have been a very empty affair.
The cast is rounded out with significantly more interesting players, most notably Benicio Del Toro’s Lado, who is one of the creepier (and at the same time begrudgingly humorous) characters in recent memory. Lado steals a number of scenes and enjoys most of the film’s most memorable (albeit disturbing) moments. Hayek’s Elena (whose lines in the trailer don’t accurately depict the success of the character or actress) may not be the most interesting of the Savages cast, but aside from a forced sidestory, she has some especially sharp interactions with Lado and O that reveal the character to be more than just a flat antagonist. Elena may not be the most realized entry in the movie, but given the horrible actions she sanctions on a daily basis, audiences are privy to a smart behind-the-criminal juxtaposition. Travolta’s Dennis is also an entertaining addition, and a fun turn for the actor, presenting a smarmy foil to the straight-edged protagonists.
The story is a compelling (albeit convoluted) narrative that is little more than a platform for all of the characters to reveal themselves as varying degrees of “Savages.” The twists and turns in the plot are mostly predictable – save for one especially manipulative moment (no spoilers) that makes the subsequent set piece somewhat underwhelming and less satisfying. Additionally, while most of the violence in the film is justifiable, there are a few scenes where humor is set against a very challenging moment – resulting in an awkward mix that is neither funny or fully disturbing. An exchange that occurs late in the film is exceptionally messy – and, instead of impactful, it falls flat because Stone is too distracted to make the horror of the scene stick.
Similarly, while most of the film’s story lines are tied up, a remaining few go unresolved. As a result, the subsequent fall out/resolution isn’t earned, and it’s somewhat unclear what effect, if any, some of the events (read: extremely horrifying events) have on a few of the characters. It’s not that everyone needs to wear obvious battle scars, but the movie’s ending is abrupt and, for many, might come across as a copout, given the severity of what previously occurred.
Savages is another competent character drama from Stone and the film holds very little back during its 130 minute runtime. Ultimately, the experience is a mishmash of challenging story beats and multifaceted character moments, paired with an equal number of predictable twists and flat cliched personalities. Considering few of the characters either change or seem to recognize what is happening to them throughout the film, it’s hard to know exactly how to take some of the onscreen drama – not to mention whether Stone was simply relying on a one-note “bad things happen” assertion, or aiming for a deeper message about humanity’s savage nature. Either way, moment to moment, a number of tense set-ups and solid performances make Savages an interesting, albeit flawed, outing.
If you’re still on the fence about Savages, check out the trailer below:
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Savages is Rated R for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout. Now playing in theaters.