Review: Savages, 2012, dir. Oliver Stone

The central metaphor behind Savages‘ title doesn’t play at being elusive; its dual meanings are front and center in the first act. In the conflict between independent marijuana growers Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), and the ruthless Baja Cartel, both sides see one another as– surprise of surprises– savages, and the longer their turf war plays out the less they hesitate to assume that role. But Oliver Stone, behind the lens and more in charge than he’s been since the turn of the century, doesn’t really care about playing coy with his film’s moniker. In his hands, Savages is a blunt force instrument, a pulpy, violent, cynical, and blackly funny bit of cultural critique with little interest in thematic nuance.

Put simply, Savages wants you to know you’re watching it. You may be disturbed by the brutality on display, and you may end up chuckling at the quirks and tics of the characters perpetrating it; subsequently, you may be somewhat disgusted with yourself. And Stone. As gruesome as Savages gets, though, Stone’s only feigning playing the provocateur. Much of the film’s most graphic content simply dovetails the sort of rank barbarism found in journalistic accounts of Mexican drug cartel activity (and some of which you might recognize if you’re a fan of, say, The Shield); Stone may be exploiting it, but he can still claim little among the methods of violence employed here as his own inventions.

In fact, that’s how Savages begins, contrasting the ugliness of the Baja Cartel’s business methods with the Earth child sensibilities of Ben and Chon. Ben, a business savvy botanist, wants to sell drugs in the most non-confrontational way possible, making it a policy to not screw around with people who could lead him to harm. Chon, an ex-Navy Seal, mostly follows Ben’s example, but even a granola-mongering peacenik needs muscle in the drug business, especially when big time dope peddlers blatantly threaten you with decapitation. Enter the Baja Cartel, led by Elena (Salma Hayek), who want Ben– apparently a THC wunderkind– to divulge the secrets of his growing method. Like the film itself, Elena’s crew applies all the subtlety of a fifty-pound sledgehammer; work with us or we’ll butcher you like cattle. Except that he doesn’t, and they don’t, which just makes the Baja look wishy washy.

Until they shanghai O (Blake Lively, the most woefully misnamed actress on the planet), Ben’s and Chon’s girlfriend (yes, it’s like that), and promise mutilation and slow death if Ben fails to deliver. Which is where Savages really picks up, as the two young men won’t take their lover’s abduction, coupled with the threat to their own livelihood, lying down. Admittedly, Lively– serving as both a damsel in distress and a narrator who isn’t unreliable as much as she is stupid– weighs things down somewhat, but she can also neither help the fact that O is written terribly nor be held accountable for the sheer volume of narration. Frankly, O just isn’t all that important; she’s mostly required to be pretty and act numb with fear.

In other words, she barely registers. Maybe this undermines the campaign of vengeful subterfuge waged by the men of her life, but it also lessens the effects of her non-acting– and besides, Stone still has a flair for stylized graphic violence. If the love triangle between Johnson, Kitsch, and Lively lacks an essential compelling element, Stone knows how to make the gritty bloodshed sparked by her kidnapping really pop (and, to be fair, Johnson and Kitsch sell their anguish over O’s hostage status effectively well). Ultimately, that’s why we watch movies like Savages in the first place; everything else can just be seen as window dressing. Stating the obvious, don’t tune into Savages for its central romantic relationship; tune in for its escalating depictions of impassioned cruelty.

And for the scenery chewing. There’s some highly entertaining major teeth-gnashing going on amongst Savages heavy hitters, and all of it’s a sight to behold. Hayek walks off with high honors here, amusingly playing one part super-mom and one part merciless drug baroness, and Travolta’s having more fun than he’s had in ages playing a corrupt DEA agent. But it’s Benicio del Toro– playing Lado, Hayek’s enforcer– who takes the top prize here. Elena might be guiding the business, but it’s Lado who gets his hands dirty murdering people and chopping their bodies up for easy disposal. Del Toro’s the sort of actor who can convey multitudes with nothing more than a sideways glance, and while Savages isn’t prime thespian product, he attacks the role with relish and smug, amoral glee nonetheless.

He’s not the only one wolfishly grinning at the material, either. Stone feels more like himself here than he has in more than a decade; maybe for that alone, Savages should be seen, though with foreknowledge that it’s still only minor Stone. Regardless, he approaches the film with tongue firmly in cheek. The surface of Savages might be all sex, drugs, and violence– with a smattering of familial static and hippie idealism– but mockingly satirical subtext riddles every single scene. In point of fact, the entire movie is all about apprehending Ben’s belief structure and tainting it. Maybe another director would see that as tragic. Stone sees that corruption as a punchline.

That’s Savages‘ unseen appeal, and easily its most recommendable element, but none of this is to say it’s perfect. The film only recalls vintage Stone– in very real, palatable ways, certainly, but not so much that it can be called a return to form. There’s a pervasive sense of hesitation here, nothing loud enough to be distracting but absolutely noticeable in the way the film occasionally shies away from really impacting, harrowing violence. It’s that indecision that proves to be the movie’s downfall in the last five minutes, and I imagine that the apologetic, wavering nature of the climax might be enough for some to relegate Savages to the trash barrel*. But if Stone can’t stick the landing, he certainly knows how to make the rest of the ride enjoyably, farcically gristly.

*Though as bad as it is, it’s also arguably respectably cynical on a number of levels.


21 thoughts on “Review: Savages, 2012, dir. Oliver Stone

  1. Good point that regardless of the efforts, since it’s not Stone’s story he can’t solely take praise or criticism. One good thing is that it feels like a Stone film which is good if you’re a fan but the excess (again not totally his doing) is something of an acquired taste in Hollywood films these days. Nicely put with this line that finds Stone “only feigning playing the provocateur”.

    Glad we agree on Del Toro as one of, if not, the high points. As with any novel adaptation you lose some of the weight in the translation and I’m curious to see what didn’t make the transition that might make certain characters more engaging or rounded (there’s also a Ben and Chon prequel book I want to check out too) but I want some sort of explanation for the ending they went with. Sort of a cop out if you ask me…but “respectably cynical” is a good way to see it.

    • Oh, I definitely think Stone can take criticism for the film– the rewind ending, as I understand it, is entirely an invention of the picture, and I’m guessing it was his idea. It’s certainly trippy enough to be Stone’s, but I also think he’s not the kind of director to pull that sort of stuff off. It’s not his bag. More what I’m getting at is that the stuff the Baja Cartel does to its enemies– like that horrible message Chon gets from them at the beginning of the film, or the tire immolation tactic used on the lawyer– is pretty real. Stone didn’t make that stuff up. From talking to a couple of critics in Boston more knowledgeable about the kind of terror tactics the cartels use down in Mexico, Savages is only missing heads on pikes. (Really.) It’s frightening to think about.

      But the movie’s really, really good, so there’s not much criticism for him to take. The ending drove me nuts, and there’s some sluggish dawdling here and there, but it’s mostly focused, mean, hilarious, grotesque, and beautifully crafted. I wish I could say it matched his best past efforts, but I’m just happy to see him operating on this level of craft at all.

      Del Toro captivated me every time he was on screen. Almost to the point of being bad for everyone else, since your eyes just sort of latch onto him whenever he’s around.

      Re: the ending. It’s definitely a huge cop-out, yeah. But there’s something SPOILERY SPOILERS SPOILERS really, really malcontent and derisive about the corrupt, slimy DEA agent getting to be the hero and receiving no comeuppance for being a lying, scheming snake. (Even if he does ultimately come down on the side of Ben and Chon.) Still would have preferred that the movie not go there at all, of course, so this is just me finding a silver lining.

  2. Nice review, Andrew. It sounds as though Savages comes in about where I would expect it to — brutal, with some definite appeal, but never quite in the comfort zone for viewers.

    • Yeah, that’s the ticket. This is NOT a movie for the faint of heart. Stay away if mass-decapitation isn’t up your alley. If you can stomach the sort of violence being sold here, Savages is a good time, though.

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  4. Great review, you definitely touched on a lot of points that went through my head while I was watching I felt like this was a big return to form for Stone, I’ve been iffy on some of his recent movies (especially the more political biopic skewing ones) but I was reminded a great deal of Natural Born Killers and Platoon at times, the latter of which is still my favorite of his films

    • I really don’t think Stone’s been good since the 90’s, so even to see a half-decent movie from him is encouraging. Of course, Savages is better than half-decent, so that’s even better.

  5. Very nicely written, sir. I concur wholeheartedly.

    “Savages is a blunt force instrument, a pulpy, violent, cynical, and blackly funny bit of cultural critique with little interest in thematic nuance”

    It certainly is. That’s about as thorough a summation of it that you’re going to get anywhere, folks.

    It’s seriously entertaining though, too, which bears note.

    It’s nto going to crack a list of top five Stone films, but I’m betting it could easily make a top ten.

    OOH! Now there’s an idea! đŸ˜€

    • Good thought. Though I think it would probably only just land a spot in the uppermost area of the list. (Which is still saying something, arguably.)

      Definitely an entertaining time at the multiplex. Personally, the performances made this one for me– not that I don’t appreciate Stone’s Tony Scott-ish editing and cinematographic flourishes, but I think the best thing about Savages lies in what he got out of his cast. BDT is frigging amazing here, as are Hayek and Travolta.

  6. I have been convinced to watch this. Stone has always been an excessive artist and pushes points and details to the point they ooze out like syrup. Personally I like the oversaturated content and technique of NBK, Platoon, JFK. But his comedic course leads to some bad thesis’s on BUSH, 9/11, and Wall Street Orig/Seq. But the point is they are not solid thesis pieces. They are outrageous and that’s what expect to see in this film, Hellbent Comeda Americana.

    • I really just found W. and World Trade Center to be weak (though I liked the former more than the latter as a portrait piece). Never caught the Wall Street sequel, mostly because I can’t think of a good reason for it to exist.

      But what you should expect from this is dark humor and relentless cynicism. Plus tons of violence.

  7. ***SPOILERS***

    This film could have been redeemed without cutting corners on the ending. You either go with the gloom and doom, or the happy fade-out, but you don’t give both as an effort to point fingers at audiences.

    • I don’t disagree with this. I like the cynical nature of the corrupt DEA agent winning, but that doesn’t make the second/rewind ending any better. It’s terrible. It’s terrible as a gimmick and as a climax.

      • I quite liked Travolta’s ending as well. That was Stone, that should have been his ending. He could have left out the Sundance Kid routine and made the point that the war on drugs is all shit and I would have been happy.

        • I think the Sundance kid ending is way more appropriate in terms of its thematic resonance– it’s the ultimate corruption of the BS hippie ideals Ben espouses throughout the whole film. But I like the Travolta ending too. They just don’t work together.

  8. nice review. I loved the book and its good to know that despite the way Stone pussies out on the ending it’s still a good movie worth going to see when it finally hits in Australia.

    • I really want to read the book, but I haven’t been able to find it at my library. And I agree that the ending is just noncommittal and kind of wimpy, but like you say that doesn’t stop the movie from being good.

      • If you don’t find it don’t worry, Don Winslow hasn’t written a bad book as far as I can tell. Try one of the others before they are turned in to films and ruined like The Death and Life of Bobby Z was.

  9. j’ai adorĂ© ce film; dure et rĂ©aliste autant cela ce peut. Plus belle fille; est du ressort d’un rĂ©alisateur de film…enfin bref, je n’ai plus aucun argument maintenant.

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