Savages is a roller coaster in almost every single aspect except for the emotional one. From beginning to end you’re treated with scenes of greatness followed by plummeting lows. The movie veers, jerks and plummets all over the place until, in a screeching and horrible ending, it stops — and then lurches forward once more to leave you with one of the worst tastes in your mouth a movie ever has.
It’s just more proof that Oliver Stone has lost touch with what makes movies work. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t changed his style in 20 years and the trends he helped create are now cliche. Whatever it is the director’s last few films have been decent at best. Not what we expect from a director who is considered one of the greats of our time. If Savages is the direction his films are going in than I’m not sure his legacy will stay the way it is.
Director: Oliver Stone
Release Date: July 6, 2012
Savages is based on the book of the same name by Don Winslow. It follows pretty much the same plot as the book (until the horrible ending) as it tells the story of two good-guy marijuana dealers who grow the best pot in the world, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson). The two of them are in a relationship with O (Blake Lively) so that when a Mexican drug cartel wants to muscle in on their territory and they refuse O gets kidnapped and the pair have to rescue her by taking on the Mexican cartel headed by Elena (Salma Hayek).
Chon, an ex-military type is fine with the killing and maiming, but Ben is an idealistic hippy and is forced into becoming something he hates to save O. The two are plagued by Lado (Benicio Del Toro), Elena’s psychotic left-hand man and aided (kind of) by a corrupt FDA official named Dennis (John Trovolta). While seemingly a revenge/rescue story Savages main focus is the relationship between Ben, Chon and O and how it eventually destroys them all or should have if the ending wasn’t tacked on for some unknown reason. As a character development study Savages could have been really interesting, especially with idealistic Ben shoved into a very, very bloody world and forced to do some pretty horrendous things. I have a feeling the book, which I have not read, confronts this relationship perfectly, but the film does not.
The problem is that none of the characters are ever given enough quality time to develop. The screenplay is so uneven and focused on killing that you’re never able to get truly invested in the characters. What makes it even worse is that both Johnson and Lively are about as interesting as a paint drying. Kitsch, who seems to be cursed to star in movies that just aren’t going to make him a star, is actually very powerful as Chon, but Johnson’s Ben, who should be the most interesting character in the film, is flat. Lively is even worse, as she practically monotones the entire dialog and is given the unfortunate duty of narrating the beginning and end of the film. Again, her character goes through some very horrible stuff, but it’s almost like she doesn’t want to be acting in the film all together.
There are bright spots, however. For every dull scene involving the star-crossed trio there is an absolutely fantastic/brutal scene involving Del Toro or Travolta. Both are at the top of their crazy games with these characters, and Travolta turns what could have been a nothing part into one of the best of the film. Del Toro is even better. With a dirty, overgrown mustache and an evil hiding right behind his eyes he makes Lado into one of the best villains to grace the screen in years. It helps that the story calls for him to do some truly horrible things and that Stone doesn’t shy away from showing them off. Eyeballs hanging out of sockets, anyone? It’s still Del Toro that makes it all work. Never so over-the-top that the character becomes a caricature, but still more demented than you could possible imagine the rest of the film is worth sitting through just to watch him.
Sadly Stone can’t keep the rest of the film at the intensity of Del Toro. Maybe that’s an impossible feat, but a little more effort could have been made. The movie has almost no control over its story and ends up feeling like it was just stuck together with some tape. Characters jump from one extreme to another without much explanation and the plot really does careen everywhere like a roller coaster. What Stone does deliver wonderfully is a tone of horror, fear and inevitable doom. Throughout the film he establishes some very dark themes very well. Then when you think the movie is over an ending so tacked on that they don’t even attempt to excuse it wraps everything up in a nice neat bow that destroys everything he built up. It’s the kind of Hollywood ending that insults the viewer, and derails a director’s entire vision.
Savages does many things right, and it’s clear that Stone is still a talented director even if he isn’t at the top of his game. Sadly, it can’t do what it does right throughout the film, instead careening in an uneven manner to an ending that almost completely invalidates the film that came before it. If the change in ending was Stone’s idea then he’s truly lost it, but if it was the studio’s idea then they’re the real savages.