REVIEW: Savages

The first act of Savages does the unthinkable for a contemporary American picture: takes it’s time to establish characters and interpersonal relationships. The patience shown by director Oliver Stone was a nice way to wash away the one-shot-at-a-time energy of Christopher Nolan’s Batman picture. Stone borrows a little bit from his past work as he creates a mixed bag of intimate characterizations and cartoonish, politically-charged violence. Unfortunately, the promise of the first half does not pay off in the last half.

Savages tells the story of three beach bums, Chon, Ben, and O, each lost souls in Laguna Beach, who, it would seem, are products of rich parents who don’t have time to think about their off-spring. These kids do what any smart kid should do: they find the best marijuana on the planet and make a fortune selling it. More interesting is that the two men, Ben and Chon, are both in love with O. Unlike, most plots of this kind, the men are fine with their shared love. A love, it becomes clear, that is more for each other than for O anyway. The story kicks into second gear when Chon and Ben, against any wishes of their own, get mixed up with a Mexican drug cartel lead by the Red Queen (Hayek) and her psychotically violent henchman, Lardo (Del Toro in top form).

The film opens with a narration from O that seems to submerge us into a poetic world of gritty violence, where the dream will soon be over for these sun-soaked protagonists. Initially, Savages moves in that direction beautifully when O is kidnapped during a slow-burning, terrifying chase scene. Chon and Ben then have to decide how to get O back: whether to comply completely with the drug cartel or risk taking things into their own hands. At this precipice of decision, the characters get murky about their thought processes and the film starts to unravel. Without having the characters make a distinct choice such as, “We will say we’re complying, but actually we’re going to steal O back,” or something of the like, it’s very difficult to know what to grasp on to. There’s a great scene midway through where Chon and Ben orchestrate a heist of $3million. Everything goes as planned and, momentarily, the outlandish violence works in perfect conjunction with the heart of these two great friends. Never again throughout the picture does this marriage of moment and tone happen as effectively.

The problem with Savages lay primarily in it’s second half. Without exploring the relationships between the two men, or giving any genuine back stories to the drug cartel, the film never can quite click on the tone it wants to portray. It’s one part graphic novel and one part Bukowski poem. On the surface this may seem like a success, but in Oliver Stone’s trademark mixed bag style, Savages just feels like a splintered array of messages and good ideas that aren’t followed through.

Performances are surprisingly textured all around. Blake Lively again shows that she has a nature often unseen on film these days. She’s outwardly sexy and oblivious but somehow also very knowing and vulnerable. Unlike contemporaries such as Scarlett Johanasson, Lively never pushes too hard to show us there’s a toughness that lies beneath. The results are often a not-so-innocent girl simply searching for something she can never find in the world. The two men, Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson, do a serviceable job as the masculine/sensual duo. Perhaps their performances feeling so “neither here, no there” contributes to the confused tone of the picture. I’m inclined to believe that had the writing given these young actors more to do, they would have been able to tackle it with color. The real show is, not surprisingly, Del Toro as the ruthless killer. His ability to go from terrifying to comic knows no bounds. Del Toro is in major need of another great role very, very soon.

The end of Savages illustrates it’s problematic structure to an almost parodying degree. Without knowing what the film is, you can’t really appropriately end it. So Stone pulls off a trick of literally showing the film rewind after the first ending and then go on to end again a second time. The first ending gives us the poetry of three lovers dying by self-inflicted wounds, thus continuing a tenuously explored Shakespearean thread, first presented in O’s opening voiceover. The second ending shows a cartoonish helicopter convoy of DEA officers capturing Hayek’s character and taking her to jail.  I suppose one could argue this is the only way to end a film with two tones going on (the novelistic noir and the intimate personal story) but, to my mind, it feels like a cope out.

Savages comes off as a seafood platter with lots of different fish included. You won’t get a great salmon, but you’ll get a few good pieces here and few bad pieces there. In the end, you can rest assured that you’re going to feel full and somewhat bloated as you leave your seat. This has come to be my experience with Oliver Stone’s movies in general. For as much literature as has been written about Stone’s subversive storytelling approach, I can’t help but find most of his movies tepid at best. There’s always enough good to find him engrossing, but the bad has a tendency to be so bad that the work can’t be fully enjoyed. [B-]

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