Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, and Oliver Stone
Starring Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, and Salma Hayek
Rated R for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout
Running Time of 130 Minutes
There’s a running joke in Savages in which various characters, when confused or disgusted by the lifestyles of others, call each other savages. This would be a witty and self referential joke if any of the characters in this film actually had any bite. Directed by the once-great Oliver Stone, Savages lacks energy and cohesion, and plays like a very thin piece of pulp. Adapted from a novel by Don Winslow, who co-writes the script, the film is free of any political or economical commentary (staples of Stone’s work) and attempts to be a visceral, violent action film. By cooling the pace and attempting to put his own stamp on it, though, Stone has killed anything and everything exciting about Winslow’s story.
Sure, this film has superficial style. Stone is up to his old tricks again, and in content and tone once can see traces of Natural Born Killers or U-Turn. But in his older years, he seems to have gone soft, or at least gone quiet. There’s violence and drugs, unspeakable acts, controversial relationships. But there’s an overwhelming sense of vapidity. The waters of California’s oceans splash against the rocks and beautiful people walk in bathing suits, plotting and scheming, and we’re supposed to have fun, right? Isn’t that the point of pulp? We don’t look to pulp for hard hitting drama or a wealth of subtext. We look for fun and sleaze. It’s hard to have fun when the proceedings are utterly lugubrious, and completely messy. There’s a lot going on in Savages; the film plays with linearity a bit and jumps around from character to character. There’s never a lack of action. But there’s a lack of cohesion. There’s no glue that holds it all together, and no narrative through line. It’s as if someone drew a lot of dots but forgot to connect them. The audience flails about, and it’s maddening.
We are left with voice over, a crutch used for films that can’t tell their stories well, and that has rarely been more true than here. It’s not that the narration serves as an expository information dump, which it does, but rather that Blake Lively has to be one of the worst narrators there is. A bland, tall, blonde presence, Lively’s voice quivers as she delivers flat, one-note narration that describes who every character is – and there are a lot of them. Lively plays O, one part of a 3-person love fest that includes Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson). Despite my general like for both of them, Kitsch and Johnson are as bland as bland can be in this film. Despite O’s insistence that they have unique traits and personalities, that just doesn’t seem to be the case. This creates a large disconnect between the film and the audience, and it makes it quite difficult to care. Although they are drug dealers and attractive, wealthy young people, they disappear into the scenery. Contrarily we have John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, and Salma Hayek. Savages is a film about big, broad characters, and performances don’t get much bigger or broader than the ones these three give. They spew profanities, twirl their mustaches (literally and figuratively), and commit heinous acts of violence and madness. They are cartoon characters, and at odds with what the film attempts to do with it’s younger cast. You don’t necessarily look for depth in these people, but you look for a little zeal or soul. I’m still looking.
If it isn’t already clear, I found this film completely frustrating. All of the elements for a fun, violent, pulpy thriller are in place, including John Travolta, who should be a requirement of anything pulp. Yet Stone simply drops the ball. The film is completely vanilla, and that becomes painfully clear when it comes to a close. Contrary to what was originally intended, Stone utilizes a narrative trick in the film’s final moments that came off as a smack in the face. I felt cheated, and I considered it to be a sin of storytelling. Oliver Stone has gone soft.