IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 128 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Best friends Chon and Ben are successful marijuana growers living in Laguna Beach, California. Seeds smuggled out of Afghanistan yielded a particularly potent strain of marijuana that soon developed a wide customer base and made Chon and Ben very wealthy. The two share one woman, who calls herself O, as a girlfriend. While Ben is doing charity work overseas, Chon and O receive a video from cartel enforcer Lado, a man they do not know. The video shows several severed heads and a chainsaw, leading them to worry about Ben, who they fear is one of the victims. However, Ben returns safely the next day, and Chon and Ben go to meet with a Mexican cartel which is determined to force a business deal with them. After refusing the cartel’s offer for a partnership, Chon and Ben make plans with O to leave and go to Indonesia for a year, not telling her that they are fleeing the cartel, but the cartel’s leader Elena has other plans…..
Even if he has lost some of his edge and relevance in recent years, Oliver Stone’s films are always worth watching. Though certainly not anywhere near his best work, Savages is his most sheerly enjoyable picture in quite a while, yet it doesn’t seem to be getting a very good reception. Perhaps people prefer Stone in ‘worthy’ mode; this is Stone in his U Turn idiom, simply having fun. I feel that Stone has been undervalued since that time decades ago when he was churning out great movies like Salvador and Born On The Fourth Of July. His efforts remain noteworthy and Savages, a vicious tale of drug-dealing and deception, is a good reminder that Stone started his career writing scripts for pure exploitation films like The Hand. Savages doesn’t really try to say anything, except that dealing drugs big- time is going to lead to trouble, but it’s constantly involving to the point I didn’t really know what was going to happen next and it is also clearly made for adults. In a Hollywood plagued by an obsession to appeal to the ‘kids’, Stone makes films his way and hurrah to that.
I have read criticism to the effect that the lifestyle of our two ‘heroes’ is likeable in a way that is wrong, but I say “sod that”; the fact that we are clearly made to envy at least some of their lifestyle at the start of the film is a reminder that Stone himself is a committed dope smoker and this, in a way, could represent a kind of paradise, albeit a paradise that soon goes wrong. Though the film opens with a brutal execution, something that Chon and Ben see, the early section gives us a vivid sense of their [at the time] great life. O’s narration, which is a bit Sunset Boulevard-style, we don’t know if this is a dead or alive person who is telling us this story, takes us through brief flashbacks as we learn how Chon and Ben’s business came about. Unfortunately, this is all so interesting one might wish the entire first half of the film details this, with the second half telling of the ‘fall’. What really doesn’t work is that we are not shown how the ménage-a-trois came about. You could also say that about Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, but they got away with it in that film because of the great performances of the leads which suggested history. In Savages, we are lumbered with Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and it’s not enough.
This is one of those films where you almost route for the villains, because the standard of acting is far higher than those of the good guys and you can’t wait for their next appearance. Benicio Del Toro, as the second in command Lado is simply terrifying in this film, he looks like he could go berserk at any time, and John Travolta is at his smug best as corrupt cop Dennis, but the revelation for me is Salma Hayek as Elena the head of the cartel. I’ve always admired her, but to be honest it’s mostly been for her looks and sexiness than her acting ability. Here, she delivers a very rounded performance, and she’s helped immensely by a script that gives almost everyone decent ‘scenes’ to enable them to convince as real people. Hayek has a great scene where she sits at a dinner table with O, whom she has kidnapped, and reveals things about herself that makes you want to pity this seemingly cruel, heartless woman.
Such stuff may disappoint those in search of simple thrills, and the action content is fairly low until the final third, but the tension is constant. One of things I like about Stone is that he directs films like a young man. From odd angles to bleached frames to black and white to time-lapse photography of a marijuana plant growing, Savages shows a filmmaker still totally in love with film. Sometimes he goes too far; one major action sequence is shot almost entirely in the horrid’ shakycam’ manner, but it’s only a two or three minutes scene and I was therefore able to tolerate it. I should also say that, even though Savages was edited for violence before release, it’s still a very brutal affair, from nasty kneecap shooting to graphic bullet head wounds to setting people on fire. When violence occurs in a Stone film, it’s not ironic or funny, it’s deadly serious, you’re not meant to ‘enjoy’ it, but in some way feel the pain and the effect. This approach may have cost Stone many fans, but it’s something I admire him for.
The story proceeds with plentiful intrigue but, as Chon and Ben get more and more knee-deep in shit and have to take action of their own, attempts to show how humans can resort to primal, well, savagery, are limited by both the performances and the depiction of the two main male characters. They seem to represent two sides of one personality and neither convince as real characters nor acknowledge a slight homoerotic element. Neither is Blake Lively a strong enough presence as O. I wish Stone had waited for his first choice Jennifer Lawrence to finish filming The Hunger Games. Then there’s the ending. Matters appear to climax with a Western-style showdown and the film ending in a way that seems right i.e. sadly, with a sense of Jacobean tragedy about it. Then, suddenly, the film rewinds and gives us what we are told is the ‘proper’ ending, which is happy and sunny and smells of Hollywood crap. Did the studio insist on this? Is Stone being clever and satirising expectations? Or could he just not decide how to end the damn thing? Whatever the reason, it ends what is overall a very underrated effort on a somewhat sour note.
The soundtrack is extremely diverse as it ranges from conventional score to pop songs but, typically for Stone, the music always seems to fit the scene in question. The set design is also clever throughout though of course this Universal horror fan couldn’t take his eyes off the wonderful posters of films like Frankenstein and The Phantom Of The Opera in Chon and Ben’s house. I don’t mean this as a slur against the film though. It really is a far better film than many would have you believe. With better characterised main roles, three decent performers in those roles, the removal of its final couple of minutes and perhaps ten minutes or so elsewhere, Savages could have been quite something. As it stands, Stone has nothing to be ashamed of here.