Starring Blake Lively, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro, and John Travolta
My rating: ★★1/2 stars
Ultra-violent tale of people reduced to their worst selves by competition in the drug trade.
I planned to give this movie a positive review because I’ve enjoyed this film on multiple viewings. Ultimately, I have to admit that it’s too deeply flawed to be a good movie, no matter how watchable it is.
“Watchable” is an odd way to describe what is the most violent film I’ve ever seen. (I’m sure there are probably more violent films—I just haven’t seen them, nor do I have a desire to see them.) What makes it so watchable is that conflict-filled scenes push the narrative along a brisk pace. Unlike a lot of modern movies, the conflicts here are based on personality as much as circumstance. Savages is, despite being a thriller, a human drama. More specifically, it’s a drama about the breakdown of people’s humanity until they are reduced to state of savagery. This film demonstrates that, for all his missteps in the last 25 years, Oliver Stone is a great director who understands the medium of film. In terms of cinematic aesthetics, I can’t fault Savages.
The film centers on Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, credited as Aaron Johnson), a botanist, and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), an ex-Navy SEAL—two former high school buddies who’ve put together the most successful independent pot-growing concern in southern California. They live an idyllic, polyamorous life with their California-girl girlfriend, O (Blake Lively), until a Mexican cartel decides on a hostile takeover of their business. Ben and Chon are, if not happy to, at least willing to give their whole business to the Mexicans, but the cartel want Ben and Chon’s expertise as well. When they refuse, the cartel kidnaps O to bend Ben and Chon to their will. Or, should I say, “her will,” as the leader of the cartel is the ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek)?
The kidnapping of O, the major event that drives the action of the film, is its biggest flaw. Essentially, it’s a “women in refrigerators” plot. “Women in refrigerators” is the term used to describe a plot device where women are killed, injured, or otherwise violated to affect the male protagonist(s) of the story. (The term stems from a Green Lantern comic where the hero finds his girlfriend stuffed in his fridge.) The “fridging” of O is not just a plot point. It is the plot. The movie can’t be assessed despite it. The story exists because of it. That the movie is narrated by O does not make the events about her. Her feelings about her kidnapping are not of primary importance. The film is about how her kidnapping affects her boyfriends. I’m not sure there would have been a way to treat the material that wouldn’t be sexist. I’m pretty sure that, if anyone was going to find that way, it wasn’t going to be Oliver Stone.
I’m often at war with my better self. My better self tells me that I shouldn’t be able to get past the inherent sexism of this story. For now, my better self is going to shut up.
The other major flaw is the casting of Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Again, I’m conflicted because he gives a very good performance as the peace-loving Ben, who suffers the most as he’s dragged into a world of degradation and violence. Taylor-Johnson is brilliant in a moment where Elena, understanding the dynamics of the Ben and Chon, forces Ben to be the one to carry out a horrific act of violence. But, he is far too young for the role. Not only is he nine years younger than Kitsch (making the idea of them being high school buddies strain credulity), throughout most of the movie he gives off a sense of unformed innocence that Ben, for all his Zen ways, just wouldn’t have.
In 2012, Hollywood seemed convinced that Taylor Kitsch was going to be a movie star. The failures of John Carter and Battleship apparently put an end to that. His performance here as the hard-nosed Chon is good, particularly in a scene where Elena forces him to confront his vulnerability, but it’s not a star performance. He’s overshadowed by Taylor-Johnson, who, for all his youth, is the more dynamic actor. Kitsch appears at his best when he’s allowed to be in a supporting role and doesn’t have to carry the action, as with his performance as Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Lively is hampered by a character who doesn’t have much definition. Even though she has substantial screen time and is given the voice-over narration, O is underwritten. I get the feeling that the writers Shane Salerno, Stone, and novelist Don Winslow, who wrote the source novel, have never met a woman. O is a plot object. (Shut up, Better Self.) Lively projects a willowy free spirit who is woefully unprepared to deal with the situation in which she finds herself. That’s good enough, I guess, for the material.
Elena, however, is interesting. I would watch a movie just about her. According to the backstory, Elena took over the cartel when her husband died. Two of her sons have been murdered. Her other children don’t want anything to do with her. Her cartel is failing. Her subordinates might be working for outfits that want to take over her turf. There is a movie in her story that is, perhaps, more engrossing than the one that was made. Hayek, whose acting ability hasn’t been fully exploited, gives a great supporting performance. The movie works best when she’s on the screen. Apparently, the writers can write female characters when they try.
Elena’s main henchman, the repulsive Lado, is played to perfection by Benicio del Toro. I haven’t read anything about Winslow having del Toro in mind when he created the character, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I can’t picture anyone else in the role. The movie makes one mistake in taking Lado’s repulsiveness a bridge too far. After the orgy of violence that precedes it, there is a scene of violence late in the movie where I just reacted, “Well, that was unnecessary.” It wasn’t that it was too violent; there was a much more violent scene earlier. It wasn’t even particularly graphic. It was just cliché. Bad writing—there’s no excuse for that.
It says something about John Travolta’s career that I’m only now getting to a discussion of his role, Dennis, a corrupt DEA agent on Ben and Chon’s payroll. Travolta is miscast. His performance is good, but his persona is too strong for this small, supporting role. He’s just got too much Travoltaness for a background character. I would like to see him get the opportunity to play roles that need his unique persona rather than ones that suffer from it.
Oliver Stone bought the rights to Winslow’s novel before it was even released. He saw the cinematic potential in the story. However, he brings the story to a radically different conclusion. I imagine that the response to this change would have been polarizing had the film been more buzzed about among cinemagoers. I wholeheartedly support Stone’s ending. We get to see Winslow’s conclusion play out before it’s revealed to be O’s fantasy, after which Stone’s ending plays out. To avoid spoilers, I’m not going to point out what’s wrong with Winslow’s conclusion and why Stone’s is superior. I will just say that I’m sure a lot of people who consider themselves serious connoisseurs of film will claim that Stone’s ending is pandering. I think Winslow’s ending is pandering, just to a different audience.
Finally, the violence. You know that scene in Un Chien Andalou with the razor and the eyeball? If you looked away, this film is not for you. I’m sure there’s a group of people who would find the violence excessive and gratuitous. I’m not one of them. The level of violence in this film is necessary and essential. The film is about the breakdown of human behavior into pure savagery, and, thus, the violence needs to be graphic and abundant. Unlike many violent films and TV shows that sanitize and choreograph the violence into something aesthetically pleasing, this film shows violence to be brutal, cruel, and painful. This film is not for everybody, but I’m glad there is a place for stories that are unpleasant and ugly. Violence is a major part of humanity, and it’s the job of art to reflect humanity, the good parts and the bad.
Without my better self, I’d give this movie 3 ½ stars. My better self won’t let me.