EXPECTATIONS: Last summer, I listened to Don Winslow's Savages during a long drive to California. As an audiobook, Savages was marred by exhaustingly shallow/flashy prose and female dialogue read in the voice actor's best gay patois, and so I gave up at the two-thirds mark. "But," I thought, "as a mechanism for hyperkinetic heist scenes, this would make a hell of a movie." Fast-forward a few months: Oliver Stone's directing Savages. Fast-forward a year: "OK, this trailer's pretty fucking boss." Fast-forward to yesterday: Salon.com's Andrew O'Hehir praises Savages as a return to form for the Oliver Stone who, once upon a time, made Natural Born Killers and U-Turn, and Roger Ebert's praises the everloving hell out of the results. So, yeah, I'm excited.
REALITY: As I was discussing Savages with former Current Releases contributor Ben "Kull the Conqueror" Altenberg, he halted me: "brb unstoppable dump coming." Yes, Savages is so average, it makes people who haven't even seen it want to take a shit.
This is doubly disappointing because Savages is tailor-made for the politically minded Stone, weaving a fictional tale around a contemporary reality: Mexican drug cartels do some incredibly fucked-up shit. In Savages, three white kids from Laguna Beach learn this the hard way. Peaceable drug dealers and BFFs Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) run a weed-farming operation that's simultaneously under the radar and worth millions, living in a beachfront mansion with their joint girlfriend, O (Blake Lively).
Ben's the peacenik hippie botanist/businessman, while Chon's the battle-scarred veteran who works as the enforcer, and neither are quite sure how to react when a cartel headed by Elena (Salma Hayek) demands a merger. "They're like Wal-Mart," corrupt DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) says, "and they want Ben & Chon's on aisle five." Of course, they refuse the textbook offer one can't refuse. Next thing you know, Elena's enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro) is orchestrating O's kidnapping. I can't believe I'm writing this, but how far ... will Ben and Chon go ... to save the woman they love?
The previous paragraph functions less as a plot synopsis than a catalyst, as all of that happens in the first 30 minutes of a 129-minute film. Most directors don't throw six major characters and a dozen chapters of plot at the audience in only a half-hour, but Stone isn't most directors. Instead, just as he did in Platoon, Stone relies on an overdose of narration, provided here by O, as a narrative shortcut. We're frequently told what happened, what's happening and how we should feel about what's happening. And I suspect material was cut from Savages, as lame narration is employed to patch over a couple disjointed transitions. Toward the end of the film, in case we were confused, O summarizes a good chunk of the first act.
At the beginning of my review, I wrote, "As I was discussing Savages with former Current Releases contributor Ben 'Kull the Conqueror' Altenberg, he halted me: 'brb unstoppable dump coming'" - SEE?! See how irritating this is? The narration is so omnipresent, repetitive, shallow and flashy, I had flashbacks to the audiobook and had to pop a Xanax to beat the shakes. In case Stone hasn't figured it out yet, we, the audience members, are watching movies so we can capture the exact opposite experience we'd get from reading the book. We prefer sound and images to Lively's decidedly un-lively narration (see what I did there?) and Winslow's overcooked prose.
Remember when I thought, "This would make a hell of a movie?" Well, if bad narration were the film's only fault, it would still be a hell of a movie. After all, at this point in Stone's career, he should realize we're used to looking past shitty voiceovers to the meat of his movies. Unfortunately, Savages has too frail a frame on which to hang much meat at all, and there's Stone's real failing: His utter inability to make the sort of lean, brutal movie the subject matter requires. When I think "three white kids from Laguna Beach vs. an army of drug-dealing Mexicans world-renowned for their capacity for violence," I don't think "129 minutes." I think, "49 seconds, a bullet-riddled Beamer and a few square feet of bloodstained Hollister - maybe some new bridge decorations if the cartel gets fancy."
The violence is Savages is as graphic as R-rated violence gets, but - and I never thought I'd write this -The trailers and TV ads seem to love this image. there's far too little of it. While I usually have a strict policy against relating novels to adaptations, Winslow's novel works - barely - as a series of heists, as Ben and Chon, disguised as members of a rival gang, steal from cartel money trains to finance O's ransom and sow discord among cartels. Stone excises most of these, reducing the number of heists to exactly one, and pads the running time with political maneuverings and bullshit plot twists. Tip for aspiring filmmakers: If you want your film to expose the brutal reality of the drug cartels, don't feed lines to John Travolta at the expense of the compelling villains you've ripped from the headlines. Elena, as a cutthroat woman who took the reigns of her cartel after she lost both a husband and two sons to cartel warfare and who holds onto these reigns even as her underlings defect to rival cartel El Azul, is the most sympathetic character in Savages, so why do we spend so much time with Ben, Chon, O and John Travolta?
Simple: White privilege. We're expected to care about white characters based solely on their whiteness, which is especially disappointing given Stone's track record with documentaries: both South of the Border and Comandante detail Stone's endeavors to interview South and Central American leaders. Then again, it's been a long time since Stone's delivered a non-white protagonist. Maybe this myopic focus on white characters speaks to some kind of subtext in Savages - that Ben and Chon are the real savages when compared to the cartels, member of which consistently, albeit brutally, adhere to a simple set of principles - but given Stone's penchant to wear his heart on his sleeve and put it all on the table, I doubt Savages has any kind of subtext whatsoever. It's all text, spelling out the message in big block letters, while Stone suspiciously ignores what should be the real target of his ire: the American war on drugs that allows both cartels and stateside distributors to flourish.
For a film that takes polyamory at face value - until O cryptically says it never works out in the final moments - Savages has a surprisingly antiquated view of gender relations. The women in Savages, save for Elena, are mere possessions, currency for men as they go about men's business. They're girlfriends, hookers, daughters, killers, but they're hardly full characters. As the lone three-dimensional female character, Elena is both motivated and eventually undone by her maternal instincts, longing for an Americanized daughter who wants nothing to do with her drug-running mother.
As if formal and textual failings weren't enough to sink Savages, Stone goes the extra mile to tack on an ending equivalent to " ... and then I woke up," which is the final insult in a film that's predicated on us giving two shits about protagonists who don't know better than to refuse - wait, remember when I said they "refuse the textbook offer one can't refuse"?
I'm hoping for a remake, because a director like Tony Scott or Wayne Kramer wouldn't savage Savages this severely.
|The Love Triangle at Its Core||Entirely Unconvincing|
|An Admittedly Gut-wrenching Opening||10/10|
|Heist Scene||9/10, and God This Movie Needs More of 'Em|
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