‘Savages’ Review

Published 3 years ago by , Updated November 26th, 2014 at 6:55 pm,

Savages Taylor Kitsch Aaron Johnson Savages Review

Savages is another competent character drama from Stone and the film holds very little back during its 130 minute runtime.

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.

Savages Blake Lively Benicio Del Toro Savages Review

Blake Lively ‘smoking’ with Benicio Del Toro in ‘Savages’

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.

Savages Aaron Johnson John Travolta Taylor Kitsch Savages Review

Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, and Taylor Kitsch in ‘Savages’

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:

[poll id=”342″]

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below.

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.

Savages is Rated R for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout. Now playing in theaters.

Our Rating:

3 out of 5

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  1. I don’t even know how i feel about this movie. Something about it isn’t sitting right with me.

    • I feel the same way, from the first time I saw the trailer, I’ve written it off completely. No desire to see it all. Which is weird, because I enjoy most of the people involved, actors and director.

  2. I have no desire to see this. A disgusting movie with disgusting characters. I’m so sick of these pro-drug pothead movies. Oliver Stone is a burned-out hippie who needs to ride off into the sunset.

    • Hes a burned out hippie? Hmmmm. And Savages was a New York Times Best Selling book… I think thats probably why he picked it up.

    • I think your motivations for not seeing this movie probably go beyond whether or not this is a good movie or not. Try posting your comments on Politico.

    • Haha Loved the last line of your comment… I definitely laughed out out loud.

  3. Thanx for the review. This movie has strangely been in on my radar. I wierdly want to see this more than Spiderman. I know im crazy.

  4. I think the same thing that happened to Ryan Reynolds last year is happing with Taylor Kitsch this year, a summer of movies that have underperfomed(Bombed.

    • It’s worse, for Kitsch, since he’s unknown except for Friday Night Lights. I bet he’s huge internationally, at least he has that going for him.

  5. I was at the Ocala premier (Florida) June 30, 2012. I had to leave half-way through the movie. It was so violent, I had a panic attack. I was laying on the lobby floor – 911 was called, but luckily, I recovered. Oh well….

  6. Taylor Kitsch who? That Gambit wannabe from X men? Another actor forced on the cinemagoing public, at least Aarron Johnson will bring some acting class to this, the British really are defining cinema these days, we are the go to men and women for world class performances

    • Benicio Del Toro is British??? Huh…..I never knew that lol

  7. I genuinely feel bad for Taylor Kitsch. He was really great in Friday Night Lights, and I liked a lot about John Carter (even though Josh Holloway would have been pitch-perfect casting for JC). But with movies he’s just bombing left and right one after another. I’ll be surprised if he makes it out of this year with much of a career. I think he’s going for the wrong roles and needs to step back and work on his acting in some indie films, FNL style, or an FNL movie. He also needs to work on his surfer dude stoner voice because it’s not gelling with the blockbuster characters he’s doing and really detracts from any gravitas he might have.

    • Hes not a “Surfer Stoner” Hes an ex navy seal…

      • Reavus said that he has a ‘surfer stoner’ voice and it isn’t working when he plays characters like john carter, the dude from battleship, and here.

  8. Why does Hollywood always feel it has the right to puke on the movie going public

  9. Spend your hard earned cash on another option. Wait and rent it from redbox. We saw it at the midnight opener last night hoping for all the promise drugs,sex,and pop music bring. Sorry.Livelys character is horrible and so anonymous. Not impassioned or even beautifull her narrating the story practically ruined it. Hard to buy into her at all. Why would anyone want to fight a huge drug carrtel to get her back?
    Benecio del toro is terrifying and one of the only reasons this movie has a chance. Johnsons character as ben as another truly believable performance.
    Weak story line…would h ave been so much more powerful just to not have narrating watering down,diluting. Time and again the movie falls short.

  10. Guys, I don’t think you really appreciate the complex nature of this film.

  11. I didn’t read your review because I’ve already seen the movie. But I agree with the 3 stars. My biggest issue with the movie is how Blake Lively narrates for the first 20 minutes.

  12. HATE Blake Lively’s character! Therefore, the fact she is the narrator sours the film. There is nothing to fault with the acting in the movie, and the story itself is rather brutal and engrossing. The ending, however, is a total copout. When I left the theater, I was still trying to figure out the narrative: if I want to watch brutality and half realized characters, there is plenty to watch on television.

    I would say this is the first movie of the summer I watched and was disappointed I didn’t wait to watch on video. Save your summer movie dollars and make your judgement when you can rent it from Redbox.

  13. I think I’ll wait to see it on DVD ….but then again I may not even watch it then. While I like the idea of Salma Hayek as a cold blooded villainess, from what I’ve read about Savages (not just here) it seems to be just a gore-filled exercise populated with cardboard characters. I think I’ll pass.

  14. This review of Savages overlooks an important aspect of the film. In writing that the story is merely a platform that allows the characters to display their various levels of savagery the writer completely misses the allegorical and symbolic aspects of the film – which are many. For a review that sees Ben and Chon as representing the Democrats and Republicans, respectively, and examines the role of war vets in this movie as well as in Stone’s larger body of work, see hygiecracy.blogspot.com

    • I read the blog post, and I found it interesting; but I do not buy into the democrat/republican duality. I found Chon’s character to be farely believable, but Ben’s character made me cringe and laugh at the same time. This is probably because I am a Berkeley alumni who grew up in Orange County, have traveled the world working for NGOs, and still smoke weed everyday.

  15. This film was awful. There were a few moments when I thought the film started to shape up and come together; but these moments were quickly shattered by irrelevant and annoying character flaws, bad acting and an unconvincing story line. The film threw me off from the very beginning, and certainly threw me off the cliff with the ending.

    With all that said…Benicio Del Toro was AMAZING!!!

  16. I am very ashamed and sad to say that this is a movie helped created by my sister. It was a disaster. I was incredibly dispaointed

  17. A friend and I were bored and drove to the multiplex just to see what was showing. We knew nothing about the movie but saw Stone, Hayek and Del Toro on the poster and decided to give it a shot. I spent a good portion of the movie clinching my fist, gritting my teeth, cursing under my breath, and trying not to avert my eyes. This movie is NOT for everyone and I totally understand and respect the negative reviews of many of he posters. My buddy and I both loved it. It was a heck of a ride in my opinion despite it’s flaws. I will be seeing this movie again, buying the book as well as the DVD.

  18. The book was Okay. Like the action was good and I even liked the story line, but the characters sucked! O was all free love and California SNOBBY! She’s just a reckless and selfish surf girl. She cares for nothing more then having sex with these two guys. Ugh! And then in the movie Blake Lively was just Serena all over again. She wrecked it for me.