Dir: Oliver Stone
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson,
Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, and John Travolta
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MONTE YAZZIE ~ THE FOOTHILLS FOCUS~ 7/18/2012
Savages is director Oliver Stone’s welcome return to the sordid and controversial form that defined his early career. Stone, who is known for character driven tales composed with hyper stylized techniques, crafts a film thick with unsavory, self-motivated characters caught up in the big business of the bustling Southern California drug trade. Savages is filled with great performances, which helps the occasionally disorganized story, and creates a hardboiled venture into the depths of the drug world.
The film begins with an ambiguous narration by O (Blake Lively), a pseudo femme fatale who cautions cryptic endings and describes her love story with Shakespearean overtones. O, short for Ophelia, is in love with California’s foremost marijuana experts; Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is a loose cannon Iraqi war veteran and Ben (Aaron Johnson) is a peace seeking botanist. The three live a life of unusual hedonism, the two men sharing in the sexual satisfaction of one woman and all seeking nothing further in life than pure self-indulgence, however this comes with the hefty price of leaving each of them severely emotionally wounded.
Chon and Ben run a clean, violence free business that makes their ethics rewarded by DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) and sought after by a Mexican drug cartel headed by the ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek). All factions are naïve about control, each of them thinking they are a step ahead when in actuality they are merely spinning in circles. The cartel soon identifies Chon and Ben’s weakness, their love for O. This leads the cartel to kidnap O in a strong-arm tactic forcing Chon and Ben to make moral altering decisions to get her back.
The film is based on the novel written by Don Winslow, who also assisted with the film adaptation along with Oliver Stone and Shane Salerno. Many of the pulp qualities utilized in the book seem tailored for Stone’s styling, but he restrains himself at times during the direction of the film. That’s a good thing considering Stone can get carried away with technical, over stylized touch-ups. However, there are moments when distracting editing choices and abrasive changes in color palette disrupt the pacing and tone of the film regardless of how ingenious they might be.
The seedy qualities of the narrative influence the atmosphere and character motivations of the film, this makes it feel natural instead of forced regardless of how inherently frustrating and unbelievable the situations and actions may seem. The film utilizes an omniscient narrator in O, a character that takes active participation during the course of the film. This red herring tactic is the weak link in the narration, it’s poorly conceived and executed in the film, but it’s also partly because Blake Lively does a weak job of embodying the emotional aspects during those occasions.
Benicio Del Toro is excellent and disturbing as the menacing enforcer of the drug cartel; you loathe him the moment he’s on screen. Del Toro is a master of subtleties; the way he walks, lights a cigarette, or chews his food all assist in his threatening presentation. Throughout the film Del Toro makes everyone better, this is seen in particular with a great scene where he interacts impressively with Travolta who, for a majority of the scenes, lumbers through reenacting the usual reprehensible personality he’s done many times before.
Another unexpected performance comes from Salma Hayek who narrowly pulls off the complexities of being a heartless head of a crime syndicate and a caring and compassionate mother. Allowing her to perform more dramatic elements in her native tongue was a smart decision. The two male leads do a suitable job though at times they falter in some of the dramatic moments. Blake Lively's performance is somewhat uneven and one-note considering the gravity of her characters situation, which is unfortunate considering the potential she has displayed in past films.
Savages exists somewhat as a grimy morality tale shrouded in sex and violence, though even with contemptible characters and a plot edging with outlandishly fare fetched developments, it’s still an interesting adult pulp narrative.
3.50 out of 5.00