All words: Alan Pyke
Oliver Stone’s proclivity for telling instead of showing is not limited to historical fiction projects like JFK, World Trade Center, and Natural Born Killers. In Savages, adapted from the novel by Don Winslow, Stone sexes up the drug war with gore and heavy-handed symbolism. But he never makes his good guys interesting, never quite risks their white-hat status enough to breathe life into the story.
O (Blake Lively) narrates, which is good because the film gives her nothing else to do than be distressed. She may be a real person to buddhist botany expert Ben (Aaron Johnson) and war vet drug enforcer Chon (Taylor Kitsch), but in cinematic terms she’s a prop, a captured chess piece who needs her men to get her back on the board. Ben and Chon are high school buddies spending their young adulthood running the biggest growing and distribution business in the high-end pot markets of southern California. From the second they’re introduced, they’re painfully simple characters with opposite, complementary values and skills. “Together they make one complete man,” O explains, in case you missed it somehow.
Benicio del Toro and Salma Hayek provide villains far more compelling than the trio of protagonists, but they’re still working with trite material. del Toro’s ruthless, terrifying enforcer Lado is well established within the first half-hour, but the movie underscores his standout performance with one last bit of wanton brutality before the climax. Hayek’s queenpin Elena has clear weaknesses lurking behind her power, but in case you missed all that they give you a physical manifestation of her character just before the end. It feels like Stone’s pressing your face against the screen, hissing “Do you get it?!” in your ear.
Between the painfully obvious opening and the cheaply executed twist ending, there’s a great deal of savagery. And headshots. And yelling. And dialog recycled from every crime flick of the past half-century. Stone pretends to contemplate how each side of the cartel-v-growhouse confrontation finds the other’s behavior subhuman. That’s an interesting kernel in theory, and all this stuff may work much better on the page than it does in Stone’s adaptation. If so, Winslow should take care not to put his material in such leaden hands again. It’s too on-the-nose to be any fun, to say nothing of provocative.
The movie isn’t asking you to ponder how violent men rationalize their behavior by projecting sub-human identities onto their adversaries, it’s telling you that they do that. And then it’s moving right along to the next trope, quickly and with plenty of shiny objects, to keep anyone from recognizing that this movie thinks you’re too dumb to find your own way through the symbolic binaries it sets up.
Savages is mostly a waste of time. With more convincing character establishment in the first 30 minutes, the rest of it — the gory, sloppy, mediocrely-plotted rest of it — would be nearer to compelling. But the screenplay never gives you any reason to invest in the trio of walking cliches who you’re supposed to root for, and Benicio in full-on creep mode is a hell of a lot more fun to watch than Kitsch as a Symbol For How Iraq And The Drug War Are Like Totally Similar, Y’Know? The problem isn’t that you’re rooting for the bad guys. It’s that there’s no reason to give a damn who comes out on top.