Director: Oliver Stone
Writers: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, Oliver Stone
Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Benicio del Toro
Release date: July 6th, 2013
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Running time: 131 minutes
Best part: Benicio Del Toro’s sadistic villain.
Worst part: The multiple endings.
Ever since Proposition 19 was announced, planning to make medicinal marijuana usage legal in California, this hot button issue has been discussed by both the US Government and Hollywood to varying degrees. With an issue as pressing as drug induced relief for dying patients, heavily opinionated director Oliver Stone has now thrown in his two cents. It comes in the form of his new flick Savages, a film containing a lot of talent but failing to sink any teeth into this pressing debate.
Savages is a toned down, confused yet stylish thriller, based on the exploits of US and Mexican drug cartels. Operating in California’s stunning Laguna Beach, two friends Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch – having a bad year after mega-flops John Carter and Battleship) run a near-perfect Cannabis manufacturing and distribution business, creating the rarest and most potent chronic available in California. Protected by corrupt DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta), the pair share a sun and sea-drenched life, along with a polyamorous relationship with Ophelia (Blake Lively). Their operation however attracts the interests of a Mexican drug cartel known as Baha, run by the seductive Elena (Selma Hayek). After turning down her prestigious offer, the two friends must then retrieve their girlfriend from Baha’s grasp, particularly steering clear of crazy cartel enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro). The two will lay down their version of the law, while escaping the clutches of the USA/Mexico drug scene.
Without the multi-layered and in-depth narrative of Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 Oscar winner Traffic, Savages sadly feels like a pale imitation. With inventive visuals, opinionated direction and noticeable thematic relevance, this is truly a Stone-r film (pun intended). Self confessed pot-fiend Oliver Stone, known for classic anti-establishment films such as JFK, Platoon and Wall Street, over the years has lost his affecting touch. His last few films, including W., Alexander and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, have been boiled down into overly serious yet goofy message-based propaganda. Savages is no exception, taking shallow pot-shots at the Obama Government, reality TV and the drug war without following through. It’s enough to say you are against certain issues in a democratic society, but without the investigative and strongly opinionated story elements of previous Stone films like Born on the Fourth of July, what is left is an empty and simplified pseudo-remake of Natural Born Killers. Stone does however create a derivative yet distinct sense of visual flair for this overly serious crime-thriller. Told from the perspective of Blake Lively’s character, her shattered point of view is illustrated through the fun and experimental use of quick cuts, lens flares, contrasting bright colours and black and white photography. Frustratingly taking the viewer out of this revenge-fantasy at every turn, Tony Scott’s shaking cameras and colour filters are also on display, conveying a hyper-kinetic look at the drug trade hopping across borders in more ways than one.
“I have orgasms, he has wargasms.” (O (Blake Lively), Savages).
The film is called Savages for a reason, displaying a shocking yet tasteful use of violence. Stone holds back from gratuity, lingering just enough on each bullet hole, cut and blood splatter to leave a lasting affect on these powerful characters, stuck in the middle of this interweaving standoff between law and cartel enforcement. The film sorely focuses too much on expressing an obvious and painfully monotonous look at a bad political situation. The film tells its story like a stoner expressing an idea; it starts off promising yet quickly descends into tedium and loses focus. Quickly becoming annoying is Lively’s continuous narration, filled with terrible puns (‘Wargasm’ and ‘12 step-dad program’ …Really?!) and obnoxious explanation of every twist and turn. The film contains many obviously black and/or white characters, mostly representing different factions in this seemingly important discussion. The three main characters are also reduced to two dimensional anti-heroes and victims, particularly due to the Yin/yang qualities of Ben and Chon. Ben is simply the charitable pot-head with a heart of gold, while Chon is the typical tough as nails war veteran with a taste for murder. Instead of an objective yet formalist discussion of race, crime and sex in the vein of City of God, the film presents a largely xenophobic representation of other cultures, particularly with every cartel enforcer portrayed as a laughable Mexican stereotype.
Despite Stone’s immense prowess (seriously, go watch his previous efforts), his last few films have fallen into easy-to-avoid traps. With Savages, his hyper-kinetic style clashes with its overbearing message – making for a truly unpleasant experience.