Saturday, November 24, 2012
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Demian Bichir, Emile Hirsch
Running Time: 131 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Savages just might be the best recent example of how a misguided ending can help unravel a film brimming with greatness. That's not to say its entirely great up to that point, but it definitely has its patches, thanks in no small part to who's behind the camera. That Oliver Stone still manages to save this says a lot. But the best news just might be that the director's back in full U-Turn mode here, meaning that anyone who prefers the filmmaker who pedaled glorious trash like that and Natural Born Killers to the more politically inclined dramatist who gave us JFK, Nixon and Born on the Fourth of July, will find little to dislike. That the same man is responsible for all these is impressive in itself and in many ways makes him the ideal choice to adapt Don Winslow's best selling novel. It just might be the most fitting match of director and material in a long time, containing on paper all the combustible elements that should cement it amongst the year's best. Yet strangely, it isn't. While I wouldn't go as far as to say that it's merely just a well executed crime thriller, there's this inescapable feeling when it ends that I should have left wit more than I got. But it's entertaining as hell, features a few really wild performances, and is easy to imagine re-watching, even while taking little new away from each viewing. The movie is one giant distraction, but that's okay since it's tough to deny we're all in need some of those every once in a while, especially if it's this fun.
When a movie's opening line is, "Just because I'm telling you this story doesn't mean I'm alive at the end," it's a pretty good bet much will go down in the ensuing two hours. And it does. That possible tease is delivered by the film's narrator, a blond, tattooed California hippie named O./A.K.A. Ophelia (Blake Lively), who's living a charmed, laid back Laguna Beach lifestyle with her two successful pot growing boyfriends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson). Chon, an Iraq War veteran, is the muscles who handles the dirty work while the more peace-loving Ben is the brains, using his brilliance as a botanist to turn their operation into the best in Southern California. It's so great that it's attracted the attention of a dangerous Mexican cartel headed by the cold, ruthless Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek), whose men demand that they turn over a stake of their business or face serious consequences. Not wanting to make any waves, Ben wants to take the deal while the hot-headed Chon thinks they should take O. and flee to Indonesia as soon as possible. But under orders from Elena, the cartel's maniacal enforcer Lado (Benicio del Toro) kidnaps O. and the guys will have to play by their rules in order to see her returned to them alive. Their only hope might be their crooked DEA agent pal Dennis (John Travolta), who's clearly playing both sides of the fence while always looking out for number one.
The opening scenes do their job in establishing that Chon and Ben could qualify as two of the luckiest movie protagonists we've seen in a while. Just on principle, it's likely every straight male audience member could hate them from the get-go considering their biggest problem in life is deciding who gets to share the bed and bathtub with Blake Lively and on which day. Similarly, O's not making out too bad herself, so it's an arrangement they're all understandably happy with until the cartel enters the picture, threatening not only their perfect hedonistic lifestyle, but all their lives. Especially O's. After a bit too much over-explanatory voiceovers and flashbacks to start, it turns out to be a credit to co-writer Stone and the actors that once the action gets going and all the narrative and visual flourishes are abandoned, we do develop a certain degree sympathy for characters who aren't exactly the easiest to sympathize with. Young, reckless, entitled and seemingly untouchable, all three are given a rude awakening when they realize they're in over their heads with these monsters.
The most interesting aspect of the film by far is the strange mother-daughter dynamic that develops between Elena and O., which starts bordering on a Stockholm Syndrome. Each seems to fill a void in the other, with captor starting to view her hostage as a surrogate for her estranged daughter and and O. looking to her as the parental figure she never had. All of this is very subtle and well written, mostly contained to a single sensational dining room scene where Elena questions whether O's seemingly perfect relationship with Chon and Ben really is as perfect as she thinks it is and whether their loyalty to each other trumps their feelings for her. Coming off her well-received supporting performance in The Town a couple of years ago, Lively impresses again in a worthy follow-up choice that definitely puts her through the wringer. I can't say another performer couldn't have done it better (maybe, maybe not), but she's completely believable in a performance that doesn't contain much depth, and doesn't need to since O's kind of a shallow of character to begin with.
Kitsch and Johnson are essentially playing polar opposites and do it well, so it's shame this was unfairly thrown in with John Carter and Battleship as another check in the loss column for Kitsch, since it represents exactly the kind of edgy supporting part he should be taking at this stage. And also probably the closest he's gotten to the brooding, quiet intensity he displayed as Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights. Johnson is probably the strongest presence of the three but it hardly matters since it's the actual "savages" that really carry this, with Hayek tearing into her meatiest role in ages as the scary but somewhat sympathetic Elena, and del Toro emotionally unstable and terrifying in just about every minute of screen time he's given. Travolta has fun hamming it up as the crooked DEA agent, providing the movie with most of its comic relief.
Without giving too much away, the film hits a big stumbling block in its final act. It's one of those things that even those who worked on the picture would have a tough time justifying or explaining from a creative standpoint. There's what seems to be a beautiful, poetic ending and then they just pull the rug out to instead give us a far less satisfying conclusion. It's not so much this actual ending that's a problem but more the cheap, manipulative way it's presented and how unfairly it plays. Not knowing how true the screenplay is to Winslow's novel, my guess just watching it would be that the studio forced Stone to make last minute changes in fear of alienating audiences who might want to go home happy and smiling. You know, come skipping out the theater from a movie about drugs, sex, murder, and kidnapping that's titled Savages. As if audiences hadn't a clue what they got into. That it doesn't seem to be about any those things when it very much is, could be the film's greatest strength. And I'm still debating whether a better ending even would have necessarily made a huge difference. This is primarily about visceral thrills and its tough to deny Stone brings those in spades. Savages is junk food for sure, but at least it's quality junk food for an adult audience that's too often criminally underserved during the summer movie season.