Film Review – Savages
In his past, Oliver Stone was one of the most consistently provocative film directors, but it has been a long time since he has felt like a major force in the industry. Over the last ten years, his work has ranged from modest successes (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, World Trade Center) to box office flops (Alexander, W.). For me, it has been over a decade since I really enjoyed one of his films, and that was Any Given Sunday. Despite all that, the trailers for Savages left me optimistic and hopeful that this would be a return to form.
The story follows two pot growers (Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch) who are forced to go to battle with a Mexican drug cartel after their shared girlfriend, O (Blake Lively), is kidnapped and held captive. I like the play on the name Savages, with both the Mexican cartel and the protagonists each claiming the others are savages for the way that they live. The film is an engaging discussion of what it means to be a savage, as everyone is shown to be both human and barbaric at different points. It is an insightful allusion to the difference between reality and perception that we deal with every day, shown through parallel storylines, as the savages become humans and humans become savages.
The success of the film is built upon the success of its three protagonists. Heading into the film, it has been a rough year for Taylor Kitsch, with two box office bombs already on his resume (John Carter, Battleship). Neither of those was his fault, and I can’t necessarily blame him for selecting the projects (alright, Battleship was a bit of a stretch). For me, he was probably the most entertaining part of Savages, but as much as I hope this will be a change of fortune for him, I can’t see this being his breakout role.
The threesome angle is played up heavily in the trailers and is very prominent in the movie. Honestly, if anything I found it to be distracting, and this was because I found Blake Lively to be a drag. It was really hard for me to empathize with their quest to rescue her at times, as she just came off as high maintenance and self-centered. This is largely a problem of how her character is written, but Lively did nothing to make herself stand out from the material. Aaron Johnson rides the middle of the road between Kitsch and Lively. He is forced to keep up with Kitsch, who is more cathartic, yet he has the most character development during the movie. He’s probably the most relatable, but ultimately not the most entertaining.
The best reason to see Savages is if you like pulp violence. The action in the movie is very enjoyable, but you have to be ready to see some gore (heads cut off, stabbings, people set on fire). The film has a well-earned R rating and hopefully you’ll go to a screening where there aren’t any six-year-old children present, because it is graphic and inappropriate for people with weak stomachs. Along this line, the film works best when it follows Johnson and Kitsch on their quest to recover Lively. The action scenes are intense, their desperation is powerful, and it makes you think about how far you would go to save someone you loved. The moral corruption for the characters, particularly Johnson, is powerful, as you have to watch him increasingly repress his pacifist beliefs as the stakes become greater.
I was a bit disappointed by the villains in the movie, despite being played by the wonderful Salma Hayek and Benicio del Toro. What starts out as scary and menacing ultimately becomes a bit anti-climactic. I was particularly disappointed with del Toro, who only at times shows flashes of the terror caused by someone like Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. I understand this was necessary given the concept of the film and needing to make the savages human, but it lets the air out of an otherwise nightmarish character, and makes the drug cartel feel a bit meek.
The biggest problem with the film lies in the construction of the film itself. Oliver Stone’s fondness for narration is a bit perplexing. Besides the fact that it is a cheap way to handle exposition, you would think after how much flack he took for using it in Alexander he would be hesitant to use it again. Unfortunately, there is a lot of it in this movie, from Blake Lively’s character, O. It drags down the momentum of the movie and doesn’t really bring anything particularly worthwhile.
Savages is flawed, and there are definitely parts I wouldn’t mind being cut out, but I think the best summary of my feelings is that I would be up for seeing it again. It won’t go into the class of Stone’s best work, but it seems to be a step towards him getting back on the right path.
Final Grade: B-