The director of classics such as Platoon, JFK, Born on the Fourth of July and Wall Street, Oliver Stone has always been a director with something to say. He has given us cinematic gems that were indictments of war and high finance, and he added fuel to the fire of the JFK conspiracy theory. More recently he has turned his attention to 9/11 and George W. Bush, but the once controversial voice has seemingly paled in comparison to the voice at the heart of those early classics. In a recent interview Stone joked that nobody listens to him anymore, and so his latest offering Savages foregoes message for a violent and at times hallucinatory tale; in short entertainment minus message.
The film is narrated by ‘O’ (Blake Lively), who makes a special effort to warn us from the outset, “Just because I’m telling you this doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end.” She is one part of a ménage à trois with the two most successful pot growers in California: Chon (Taylor Kitsch) a hardened Iraq veteran, and business graduate and botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson). Together they live an idyllic and carefree lifestyle, that is, until their product catches the attention of the Baja Cartel, headed by the maternal yet equally ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek), and her menacing enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro). When Chon and Ben decline the Cartel’s offer, ‘O’ is kidnapped and the two Californian men wage a war to get their girl back.
For the most part Savages is an entertaining film, and throughout its 129 minute running time never feels as if it as outstays its welcome. That said, it is a film from which derives a feeling of indifference. It is neither a great film nor is it a bad film. It is well directed and performed, but nevertheless struggles to strike you as anything remarkable. The narrative’s twists and turns as characters scheme with and against one another are generally underplayed, thwarting the audience’s immersion, and it is never the roller coaster ride that it seemingly believes itself to be. Rather than creating a world of genuine distrust and paranoia, it instead creates a world which is trying to be that world.
Stone has always been a filmmaker with a visual flare for narrative storytelling, and it would be bad enough if it was only at times that Savages’ cinematography was unnecessarily stylised, but what makes this all the more startling is Stone’s use of Brahms’ Symphony number one in at least two sequences. It provides them with a surreal and hallucinatory quality. Whilst this was effective in Natural Born Killers, here it feels forced, perhaps because the director uses these moments as brief interludes that don’t fit tonally with the rest of the film.
It is through the relationships between Chon and Ben, Elena and ‘O’ that the film gains its sense of gravity. In fact Savages is a film not of performances but rather of characters and how they interact with one another. The hardened Iraq veteran Chon is the one who does the dirty work, whilst Ben remains the business mind, taking trips around the world to help those less fortunate. In one scene he tells Chon, “I didn’t get into the drug business to kill people.” Stone effectively presents the conflict of the individual willing to compromise his morality, versus the reluctant individual. Through this relationship the director explores Ben’s descent into violence and immorality, arguing that once you cross the moral line, it is the beginning of an inevitable downward spiral no matter how small the initial crime. Meanwhile Elena and her captive ‘O’, form an interesting bond, a revelation I will not spoil by revealing here.
Credit should go to the characters, which are as the film’s title suggests all ‘Savages.’ Despite this, they remain an interesting and entertaining ensemble. Benicio Del Toro is wonderfully menacing and evil, whilst Hayek compromises perfectly the maternal elements of her character with those of the ruthless Cartel leader. Meanwhile John Travolta who plays corrupt DEA Agent Dennis and master manipulator, gives the film, along with Del Toro, its sense of humour, something the film is heavily lacking. A little more humour and comedy would have gone a long way in making this film somewhat of a more memorable and involving experience.