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.
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.
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.
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.