Savages (2012) Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, and Blake Lively. IMDB says: ”Pot growers Ben and Chon face off against the Mexican drug cartel who kidnapped their shared girlfriend.”
When I saw the trailer for this film, I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy it. But I remained positive and hopeful that it would be different. After all, it’s an Oliver Stone film. Can’t be that bad right? I was mistaken from the word go. The film jumps from scene to scene as a black and white O (Blake Lively) starts off by strolling along the beach cooing about how “…just because I’m here in the beginning of the story, doesn’t mean I’m not dead at the end…” After some clichés about oceans and sharks, O gives the back-story about Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), yes his name is Chon, and how they built an impressive marijuana empire in southern California. Word gets out about how good their product is and a Mexican Cartel, run by Salma Hayek, wants in. Of course, Ben and Chon aren’t interested, but when O gets kidnapped, they start listening and the film starts to fall apart.
The film jump cuts and fades through a story that starts off pretty well paced, but after each robbery, gun fight, sex scene, curveball, or violent torture, the pacing gets thrown off and the film has a hard time finding its footing again. It doesn’t help that the film shifts between color, black and white, hyper-real coloring, 16mm, digital, and unfocused shots that take away more than they add. Nor does it help that the film gives you enough to understand the story, but not enough to get emotionally invested in the characters. In moments of fear characters can cry about their families and kids all they want, but unless we can see and feel those moments, those sentiments fall flat on an already bland and clichéd script. Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro, and Aaron Johnson try their best with what’s on the page, but even they end up giving an exaggerated performance as they scream, cry, and wince their way through dialogue that’s very uncharacteristic to an Oliver Stone film. Even the characters portrayed by John Travolta and Emile Hirsch, who I’m assuming were brought in for comedic effect, leave you wondering what is their purpose other than to forward the plot along. At times, even though the film drags along, it rushes through scenes to get to the next plot point when you’re more interested on how they’re getting there and what steps they are taking, rather than just seeing it happen.
All negatives aside, the film does three things well. For starters, the settings and locations are beautiful. Be it the hotels, homes of drug lords, or even the southern California beaches, the color pops out at you and whisks you away to a temporary paradise. When we’re not looking at the beautiful side of the drug world, we’re looking at desert plains, Mexican alleyways, and torture rooms. These are shot wonderfully with not only great lighting, but with color palettes that add tension while making you feel comfortable. The special effects are fantastic. Every gun shot, explosion, stab, and eye removal (yeah, you read that right) comes across feeling real, looking real, and leaves the CGI uncertainty at home. The highlight of the film is its fantastic soundtrack. The soundtrack is almost too perfect with artists like M. Ward, Peter Tosh, Jeff Lyne, and Bob Dylan helping to bring you into the film’s world of deceit, weed, and murder. All of these songs fit perfectly with the bland dialogue being spoken by the uninteresting characters on screen and are used to a greater dramatic effect then just a clichéd montage.
As hard as this film tries, it falls short on so much that it disappoints you to see the finished product on screen knowing the potential this film had to be great. If you’re interested in seeing this film in theaters, wait. Rent it in a few months instead. Or not at all.
This film is based on a novel by crime-writer and former private investigator Don Winslow. His writing style is quite unique, disregarding rules of typical prose to craft a high adrenaline, super pulpy, bursting fit of a novel in Savages. I loved every minute of the tale of two completely unusual drug dealers and best friends, Ben and Chon, and their unconventional relationship with Ophelia (who goes simply by O). She’s typical in the sense of rich, spoiled SoCal hippie, but she does have the sweet side of a great companion and match for either partner. Ben is a pacifist who uses his wealth on philanthropic efforts in Africa, and just happens to make some sick marijuana with exorbitant levels of THC. Chon has an outwardly aggressive demeanor and special skills from his tours as a Navy SEAL. On the antagonizing side of things, are fully fleshed out, fascinating characters. There’s Elena, the underestimated cartel leader who tows the line of being completely unfit for her position because of certain emotional weaknesses and willing to do any of the vicious acts it requires without a hint of empathy. Her right hand man, Lado, is a sadistic creep with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Lastly, there’s Dennis, the DEA agent that is paid off by Ben and Chon for his silence—which you know represents plenty of existing people fighting America’s current “war on drugs”.
If any of these sketches of characters sound appealing, then this story is probably for you. Their ordeal of freeing O from her drug cartel kidnappers using wickedly smart methods and necessary violence was truly enthralling. I was constantly surprised by their tactics, which I had never really experienced before in film or novel form. With all of this to build up my anticipation for this film, I ended up being let down with the result. Most of the intriguing set ups in the books didn’t show up, and two of the really interesting ones were condensed into one watered down version.
I suppose if you didn’t know what could’ve been it might not even bother you, but I couldn’t help but think it weakened the overall story and your excitement for Ben and Chon as they take on the cartel. All of the characters’ identities are presented much more broadly on film, which makes me wonder how non-readers will feel about them. I can’t help but fill in the gaps. The biggest change in the story comes at the very end of the film, which I was very unhappy with. The book’s ending was perfect, but the Hollywood-style finish of this movie just dragged it down a notch.
One of the biggest problems with the film is how distracting the direction and editing can be. Oliver Stone’s method is so stylistically overwrought that I became annoyed at certain points. Specifically, scenes would turn black and white without any sort of thematic purpose. Those sort of random flourishes seem more typical of a less established director, but maybe I just don’t really like Stone. Certain things, like the saturated colors work well this over the top story, but the more is more approach definitely doesn’t work overall.
At this point, I sort of feel like I have completely destroyed any of the credit that I do think this movie deserves. It’s not a complete wreck. The performances are all pretty great, and are perfect casting choices for the novel. While Nick thought the acting was too exaggerated, I felt they fit with the tone of the story. Johnson and Kitsch served well filling out the opposing personalities of the leads, while Lively is just serviceable in the role, looking more beautiful than ever when she’s not being held hostage. The fun parts come in with del Toro as the scumbag Lado and Hayek as the cartel leader Elena. Both own their roles and outshine their younger costars.
The plot after all is not completely lost in this adaptation either. What they do keep does work enough to showcase some of the fun and daring elements of the novel. It’s still a burst of energy (up until the ending, depending on your taste) with plenty of brutal violence to appease the crime thriller genre. It plays on the themes in the novel, debating the labeling of who is actually savage, or at least capable of it, without ever dwelling on the specifics. This is a decent popcorn flick that might be a stylized mess, but it’s a pretty fun mess to experience despite its shortcomings living up to the source material.