It’s tough trying to figure out which side of Oliver Stone’s career Savages would fall under. Part of the director’s output is fueled by an anger that’s always unafraid to show people at their ugliest. Then there’s another side, which we’ve seen these past few years, that’s much softer. While Stone’s recent work has been far from the image of a cuddly teddy bear – with the exception of familial scenes peppered throughout Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – he’s become more empathetic towards his characters and less willing to poke fun at them, which was highlighted best by 2008’s W.
Where does Savages fit between those two distinct outlooks? Somewhere comfortably in the middle.
Based on Don Winslow’s novel of the same name, Savages tells the bloody, dramatic, and comical tale of a three-way relationship taking a turn for the worst. The thinker, Ben (Aaron Johnson), and the doer, Chon (Taylor Kitsch), run a business together, providing some of the best weed in California. With business and life going too well, others attempt to cash in on their success, namely Elena, a major drug kingpin who features both genuine charm and ferocity, played by Salma Hayek. When Ben and Chon decline her business proposal, Elena hits them closest to home: their shared lover, O (Blake Lively). To get her back, Ben and Chon wage a small-scale war, attacking both the business and family side of Elena’s life.
What do all these characters have in common, including Ben and Chon’s DEA buddy Dennis (John Travolta) and Elena’s vicious henchman Lado (Benicio Del Toro)? If you haven’t guessed by now, it’s that they’re “savages.” Obviously Stone is no stranger to those types of characters, but, with Savages, he wants to convey an important detail every savage has in common: a family. No matter how many drugs one of these characters sells or how many people they kill, all of them go home and care for their families at the end of the day. In that way, Savages becomes an almost ironic title as Stone goes as far as he can to humanize this ensemble. Case in point: Lado.
Lado is a real bastard, and by far the biggest in a film almost filled with nothing but bastards. He rapes, tortures, and commits murder, always cracking a smile under that “yes, I am evil” mustache of his while doing so. The obvious choice would be to give a character this villainous some level of comeuppance, but, by the end, it’s once again noted that he’s a family man first, violent criminal second. The key antagonist, Elena, is perhaps the character Stone empathizes with the most. Despite kidnapping O, the cartel-running mother has got her own set of family problems, and Stone is at his most melodramatic when it comes to her life.
Stone goes big in Savages. There’s an operatic approach to the drama, with the laughs and the brutality. Nearly everything is played to 11, while still managing to maintain a sense of grounding, thanks to the heightened and raw work by cinematographer Daniel Mindel (Star Trek, Spy Game) and compelling performances.
On that front, if one of those performances is going to down as one of this summer’s surprises, it’s Taylor Kitsch’s. With Battleship and John Carter, Kitsch didn’t exactly get off to a promising start with impressing a broad audience, never quite living up to his work on Friday Night Lights. Stone helps him do just that with Chon. Kitsch gives this thinking man’s brute hero a presence – a key ingredient missing in both of his blockbuster efforts. Chon is the muscle man between Ben and him, and Kitsch shows you exactly why that is, even when he isn’t wielding a gun. Johnson counters that power with a suave and relaxed presence. No matter how different Chon and Ben sound, Johnson, Kitsch, and Stone make their friendship as real and convincing.
They also make their trio of love with O believable. It’s not about the sleaze or the sex. They all genuinely love each other. Obviously Lively has the looks for the O that Winslow wrote, and she mostly gets the freewheeling coolness of the character as well. The biggest problem with Savages, in fact, isn’t Lively, but the introduction she has – which not many actors could have pulled off. There’s a good amount of ground cover in the set up of the film, and far too much of it is done through O with an overlong opening narration. It ultimately ends up doing O a major disservice. Lively has to overcome coming off as a plot device and fight to get you back on her side once that bothersome narration ends.
Once it does finally end, Lively and Stone find a groove, turning Savages into a richly entertaining adaptation of Winslow’s novel. This is not a movie for everyone, as one hilarious narrative trick towards the end reminds us. For a summer movie, the director’s delivered one of the season’s most interesting and effortlessly cool pictures.
The Upside: Taylor Kitsch proves he has movie star potential; Del Toro’s hair, Del Toro’s mustache, and Del Toro’s everything; Travolta in F-bomb mode; Blake Lively, like Kitsch, shows she can do more than her harsher critics claim.
The Downside: O’s introduction is severely undercut by the exposition; a mildly shaggy second act; could use more Dennis, thanks to Travolta having a ball in the role.
On The Side: Oliver Stone started developing Savages before the book came out.
On The Other Side: Don Winslow wrote a prequel to Savages, titled The Kings of Cool.