‘Savages’, a strange and often annoying misfire
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Shane Salerno & Don Winslow & Oliver Stone
Taylor Kitsch cannot catch a break this year. After appearing as the lead in the enjoyable but financially disastrous John Carter, he headlined the equally unpopular and far less entertaining Battleship. Now, he’s one of the leads of Oliver Stone’s latest film, the crime thriller Savages, based on the novel by co-screenwriter Don Winslow. Savages is, or wants to be, gloriously excessive but is instead grating, bathed in self-love, filled with barely-sketched-in characters, and is a bore to watch.
Kitsch isn’t the problem, thankfully. Though people won’t look back on 2012 as a banner year for the actor best known for his work on the excellent Friday Night Lights, he’s fine if unremarkable here as Chon, an ex-U.S. Navy SEAL in the marijuana business with his best friend, Ben (Aaron Johnson). Chon is the muscles of the organization, while Ben is the uber-peaceful and Earth-loving scientist who’s helped cultivate exceptionally strong strains of pot, so strong that they attract the attention of a powerful and vicious Mexican cartel that wants to consume their partnership. When Chon and Ben refuse, the cartel abducts their mutual girlfriend, O (Blake Lively), and threaten to kill her unless they comply. Chon and Ben’s attempt to save O pushes the plot into high gear.
Well, higher gear, that is. Stone’s career is checkered, but one theme running through his most recognizable works, from Wall Street to Natural Born Killers, is greed and excess. At his best, Stone employs such themes for a purpose. Here, he goes for excess simply because he can. The supposed heart of the film is that weird relationship Chon and Ben have with O—she’s in love with both of them because, to her, they form a complete person. They’re both in love with, and happy to share, her and never once butt heads over who loves her more, or something along those lines. Their relationship is meant to be liberated, freeing, and truly sexual, but it never manifests as such. Savages shows us in-your-face violence, blood spilling everywhere. There’s plenty of wanton drug use and profanity. But when it comes to sex, this film is replete with fully clothed hedonism. Nudity would make sense in this story, but as gratuitous as the film is in other areas, Stone seems skittish to push the envelope.
And unfortunately, the central relationship falters immediately because of its core. One of the first things we hear in Savages is voiceover narration from Blake Lively. Voiceover is an art we take for granted, only appreciating its true value when we’re presented with its nadir, when someone who can read text aloud doesn’t infuse it with any earned or believable emotion. The current champion of voiceover narration is Morgan Freeman, an obvious choice for good reason. Blake Lively is many things, but Morgan Freeman, she ain’t. Her voice gives no life to the characters she’s talking about, the settings she describes, or even the character she plays. But amazingly, the worst aspect of the voiceover isn’t even that it’s read by Lively; it’s that the voiceover only serves as a massive dump of exposition.
O introduces us to the film’s characters through the narration. We don’t meet them or learn about them through actions they perform. O tells us about Chon and Ben, about the DEA agent (an utterly wasted John Travolta) helping them on the side, and about the villainous members of the Mexican cartel (Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro, predominantly) holding O hostage. One of the first lessons anyone gets in a high-school creative writing class is to show, not tell. Savages’ script, by Shane Salerno & Winslow & Stone, tells far, far too often. Though O may have served a similar narrative function in the novel the film’s based on, the voiceover doesn’t translate at all to the silver screen.
The script fails almost entirely, not just in the voiceover; the cast is left to pick up the pieces and try to create something meaningful with them. Kitsch and Johnson are OK as Chon and Ben, but their near-brotherly rapport, or what’s meant to be such a close bond, never appears. Del Toro is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the best part of the film if only because he’s chewing the scenery with such gusto. Still, his performance too often slips into camp, as when Lively spits on his face and he gleefully licks the saliva off his craggy features and swallows it. He’s the living, breathing embodiment of excess in Savages, crossing the line into bad taste for no good reason aside from proving it’s possible to do so.
Savages is a strange and often annoying misfire; in many ways, it’s as baffling as it is bad. Here’s a movie that actually encourages comparisons to such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (O considers herself equal to that film’s Katharine Ross character, and again, Blake Lively doesn’t withstand such a connection) without ever deserving them. Savages collects a bunch of actors who’ve proven in past films to be quirky and fun, and strands them as lifeless supporting characters. (Remember Emile Hirsch? Blink and you may miss him here.) Savages tries, through gore and the promise of forbidden romances, to engage its audience but fails to deliver on the promise.
– Josh Spiegel