Savages (2012) – Oliver Stone

What submarines Oliver Stone’s Savages isn’t the fact that the heroes are far less interesting than the villains, that’s fairly common, but it’s the fact that we are completely uninterested in the heroes, their goals, and whether or not they’ll attain them. Stone made one of the great movies about our society’s desensitivity to violence in Natural Born Killers (1994), and here he put the theories of that movie to the test by giving us some of the most gruesome scenes of malice he’s ever presented while having us sit there, totally uninvested. Our apathy toward the leads in this movie is so complete that the skillful and gritty scenes of gore become better than the sterile computer-generated comic violence I spend so much time deploring. Scenes of robots or superheroes throttling each other become monotonous because there are no consequences. The violence in Savages becomes monotonous because we don’t care about the consequences.

The movie is about two California pot growers, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who get muscled by a relentless Mexican cartel that wants some of their market. When they refuse, the cartel, run by the ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek) and her henchmen, Lado and Alex (Benicio Del Toro and Demián Bichir), kidnaps the girlfriend the two of them share, O (Blake Lively). Ben and Chon spend the rest of the movie trying to get her back.

Savages is at its best when Hayek, Del Toro and Bichir are on the screen, particularly when they are making deals or planning their next move. Stone has an obsession with the pursuit of money, and the dialogue, from a screenplay by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow and Stone, finds a rhythm only during the scenes in which business is discussed. The rest of the time the script gets in the way, especially during Lively’s overused narration in which she lobs faux-profound clichés and bizarre puns to try to explain her unusual relationship with her two boyfriends. Some of this stuff would get laughed out of the room as a Sex and the City spec script, yet it becomes the source of almost all of the characterization about the three people we are supposed to care about the most.

During endless montages of the three of them making love or going surfing we are given cloying and clunky remarks that are intended as characterization but are just empty statements about cardboard people. O is short for Ophelia, from “Hamlet,” and that is to suggest that O is deep; also she loves two dudes so she must be beyond us all. We learn that Ben uses his drug money to go to Africa on humanitarian missions so we are told he is noble, and Chon, fresh from two tours in the Middle East, is described as a wounded, damaged tough guy (O tells us that whereas she has orgasms, Chon has “wargasms”). Chon is cold steel, Ben is warm wood, she says. They do resemble inanimate objects.

As the going gets tough and this high-minded pair who only wanted to grow a little weed find themselves coming down to the level of their enemies, the movie becomes about the battle over their souls: whether they can keep their ideals while navigating the ugly world they’ve been sucked into. The problem is we don’t care about their souls because the only thing we know about them we’ve been told, and their behavior and actions, which are stiff and uninteresting, don’t confirm that. Not only is the movie not interested in the complications of two men allegedly loving one woman equally and that woman loving both men back equally (in all actuality, Ben and Chon could have been one character and the narrative wouldn’t have changed much), but they also have to resort to referencing another movie triangle (Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katherine Ross in 1967’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) to try and plumb any semblance of emotional involvement.

Countered against this flighty bunch of walking Ambiens is the drug cartel, like snarling dogs wrestling each other for a larger slice of the pie, that mercifully interjects life into the movie. Hayek and Del Toro provide two different types of menace, both effective. Hayek, with her Cleopatra haircut, suggests an asp perpetually prepared to strike, and Del Toro is like a panther who circles his prey, always reminding them of his power. The moments when those two toy with the kidnapped O had some of the same intensity as Almadovar’s The Skin I Live In (2011), but they can’t build to any real power because there’s nothing compelling us toward the captured, so even their passionate and alive performances don’t amount to much because they’re pitched against nothing. That Savages could have been a fascinating film is clear because half of it is. Why Stone is so interested in the power plays within the cartel makes sense to me, as does his treatment of the snaky DEA agent (John Travolta) who shamelessly tries to play both sides, but I don’t understand why he’d so under develop the central relationship in the movie. Almost no credence is given to the emotional ramifications of their triangular arrangement. When O gets kidnapped, Ben and Chon become good boy scouts and equally hit the road to rescue. A movie that should have been making me think of Jules and Jim (1962) has more in common with Fast Five (2011).

The movie is skillfully made; Daniel Mindel’s camerawork gives us a washed out, sun-drenched landscape where there is nowhere to hide. Stone’s movies are always brilliantly assembled and there are moments when Savages takes flight and breathlessly teaches us something about the drug trade, but it was set up for failure due to its empty protagonists. During the final shoot-out we are given a bloody finale that turns out to be a trick ending, as the movie goes back and gives us an alternate conclusion that is designed to be more satisfying. I longed for the first ending, if only because it would have been over ten minutes earlier.

One Response to Savages (2012) – Oliver Stone

  1. Quite apparent from the dialog of Ophelia that her character is indeed “deep”. The audience isn’t “told” anything; we are left to paint the portraits from the backgrounds we are given in the movie.

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