Movie Review: 'Savages'

"Savages" is a backwards love story and drug-based crime drama that centers around a stoner girl.

Oliver Stone is a polarizing filmmaker. A quick glimpse at the divisive reviews that Natural Born Killers has accumulated over the years says a lot about the way different people view Stone's work.

In my experience, the divisive Stone is often the most enjoyable. For me, the enjoyable aspects of some of Stone's work are precisely those that many people strongly dislike: the over-the-top violence, borderline campy melodrama, chaos, self-indulgence and the problematic ambition.

I'm not sure I subscribe to the "great" or "brilliant" side of Stone that some people see, but I definitely have fun with some of his films. When he plays it more straight-forward, his limitations as a traditional filmmaker become more readily apparent, and he becomes actually kind of boring (a word that can never be used to describe something like Natural Born Killers, no matter how much you may dislike it). 

Savages marks somewhat of a welcomed return to the chaotic, although it doesn't quite reach the levels of bat-s**t craziness that I had hoped for or that the marketing had hinted at. 

Adapted by Stone, Don Winslow and Shane Salermo from Winslow's similarly titled novel, Savages is a backwards love story and drug-based crime drama that centers around a stoner girl named Ophelia (or "O" as she is known). O (Blake Lively) is in the middle of a bizarre love triangle where she lives with both guys, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who also happen to be best friends.

With some under-the-table help from a crooked DEA agent (John Travolta), Ben, a naive hippie who does his part to better the world, and Chon, an intense ex-navy seal, head a seriously profitable marijuana business in Laguna Beach, CA. The duo's reluctance to accept a partnership with Mexico-based drug kingpin named Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek) leads to a plan to ditch the drug business and disappear to Indonesia. But O's kidnap by Sanchez' henchman Lado (Benicio del Toro) causes the proverbial s**t to hit the fan.

Savages is excessive, graphically sexual and violent, and seriously flawed, but I enjoyed it a good deal. For just about every positive aspect of the film that I can give you is an equally strong negative, so to praise the movie in its entirety would be a bit hard for me to do. What I can do is point out the aspects that I found to be the film's strong points and weaknesses, and let you decide which way your interest will fall. However, if you have seen some of Stone's more well known films and would call yourself a fan, there's no reason to think you won't like this. Call it a middle of the road entry into Stone's filmography.

Among Savages' many issues is a pretty terrible script. I'm not familiar with Winslow's source material and I can't speak to how much of the screenplay is his doing, how much is Stone's and how much is Salermo's. The problem comes not necessarily with the story being told, but with how it's told.

There is a horribly written Blake Lively voiceover throughout that will induce eye-rolling on more than one occasion. The dialogue during the voiceover and at times throughout the actual narrative is really poor. It's hard to believe that people would actually talk this way, even stoners.

It runs too long—clocking in at about 130 minutes—considering there is a noticeable lull in the middle of the film.

The theme throughout is to basically show the polar opposite ends of the human character. We see people who do terrible things for a living break down and show their human sides when confronted with their weaknesses, often times familial issues, and we see otherwise good people resort to doing terrible things when pushed far enough.

Both sides see the actions of the other as being savage. This works to an extent, and with certain characters more than others. After a while however it becomes a bit repetitive.

While I won't spoil the substance of the ending I will point out that there are basically two endings, neither of which are particularly strong. It feels as if collectively, Stone and company were unable to decide which way they wanted the climax to go, so they decided to include both just for the hell of it. I actually didn't mind this as much as some undoubtedly will, but it's unusual and I would have preferred if they didn't take the easy way out.

There are also some expected directorial flourishes that really add nothing and at times get in the way. Things like random use of black and white, cartoony on screen graphics, and random shots of things like a flower opening in front of a Buddha statute (I swear that's in there) serve no purpose.Natural Born Killers was such a head trip that things like a full-length cartoon Coke-a-Cola commercial didn't seem out of place: here these things stick out like a sore thumb.

For the most part the acting is passable, with some performances completely outshining others. Among the weaker aspects, as could probably have been predicted, is Lively, who isn't as bad as she could have been but certainly isn't good.

However, I blame a lot of her shortcomings here on the dialogue she had to work with. Regardless, the fact that she is the thread that holds the plot together is a bit of a problem. She's flanked by Kitsch and Johnson, who are both fine. They portray their respective characters exactly as they were supposed to, and Kitsch is actually much better than I anticipated given his less than stellar history.

Without question, the standout is Benicio del Toro, which isn't a surprise considering he's the strongest actor of the group. He's a sleazy individual who works both as the film's hands-on villain and at times as comic relief. Travolta is strong as well although he has a lot less screen time than the rest of the group.

Savages is basically what I expected it would be. It's a mess, but it's a mess you can have fun with.

Rating: 6/11

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