Directed By: Oliver Stone
Written By: Oliver Stone, Don Winslow, and Shane Salerno, based on a novel by Winslow
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, John Travolta, Salma Hayek, Demian Bichir, and Emile Hirsch
Director of Photography: Dan Mindel, Editors: Joe Hutshing, Sturart Levy, and Alex Marquez, Production Designer: Tomas Voth, Original Music: Adam Peters
Oliver Stone’s cinematic sensibilities are equivalent to a sledgehammer to the face—Subtlety is not his forte. His camera is constantly moving, changing shades of colors and hues, flashing between them, and his soundtrack filled with a mix of rock and roll as well as intense classical, all to pummel you into submission. When Stone goes off the rails, most notably in films like JFK and Nixon, it brings you into the paranoia and intensity of the characters he focuses on. When he pulls it back, even just a little bit, it reveals the shallowness of his filmmaking. Wall Street and Platoon have not aged well to say the least, and dear goodness let’s not remember World Trade Center, which turned 9/11 into a Lifetime movie.
So perhaps we should be happy that in Savages, Stone has returned to the intense filmmaking that has made him an auteur (Would he be Expressive Esoterica or Strained Seriousness?). Or perhaps not. Based on a Don Winslow novel, Savages is a drug movie, which could be a good ol’ summer shoot-em-up if it wasn’t for Stone’s operatic sensibilities. It begins with a draining voiceover by Blake Lively, whose name is Ophelia but goes by the name O (The other Hamlet reference is all the dead bodies). She explains that she’s the lover of Chon and Ben, who provide Laguna Beach with the world’s finest marijuana (“The THC levels are 33%” they exclaim, which means nothing to this non-smoker). O uses a little of each for both—Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is the brawny, military man who has “wargasms,” while Ben (Aaron Johnson) is the hippie free spirit who wants to help the world with $10 laptops and solar panels when he’s not getting rich.
So like in any story about rich white drug dealers, they end up in a battle with a Mexican drug cartel. Cue the blood, torture, and rape! Savages is an indulgent film to say the least. Stone has a lot of fun crafting these sequences in which you feel like any character may pull out a gun at any moment. He builds his film around sequences that had my audience hooting and hollering and screaming four letter expletives. And when he’s not focusing on our silly little trio, he has rounded his casts with a set of actors who show no restraint. There’s Benicio Del Toro, twirling a comically large mustache, and there’s John Travolta going completely over the rails as a dirty DEA agent. Perhaps the best is Salma Hayek as the cartel’s leader (queenpin?). Furious and intense, she deadpans her dialogue and gives looks that truly feel like they could kill.
But for all the explosions and chaos and constant “showdowns” between the white gang and cartel leaders, nothing in Savages feels particularly at stake, and thus the film seems to go on ad nauseam. Yes, I guess these characters could die at any moment, but even with Stone’s hyperkinetic filmmaking (more color! More music! More discontinuous editing!), Savages feels paced like a snail, with no real sense of structure, and numerous plot holes (why these characters don’t kill each other when they’re in the same room in at least ten different moments completely baffled me). However, Stone and Winslow made one great change from the original novel, in which Stone indulges in almost two different endings, as if he couldn’t choose which would be more fresh and exciting, so he put both together.
It’s a shame that the rest of the film isn’t that fresh and clever. Between Lively’s attempts to be taken as a serious actor (hearing she was being replaced by Rooney Mara in Soderbergh’s next film was a sigh of relief) and Stone’s ability to craft together a narrative that feels stagnant, Savages is a distractingly amusing film, but a distraction nonetheless.