It is easy to forget, through Oliver Stone’s many more didactic and political films (Wall Street, Nixon, W.), how incredibly stylish the director of Natural Born Killers can be. Whereas that film cuts to the very heart of our culture’s relationship with violence, however, once cannot help but wonder where Savages, a far less self-conscious film in that regard, stands in relation with it. If Savages does have anything to say (and we know Oliver Stone loves somewhat explicative cinema), all of that, regrettably, gets lost in the shuffle of action which is not exiting enough, central characters that are not likable enough, and secondary characters that are too distracting.
The film spends what is functionally the minimal amount of time settings up the characters we are meant to be getting behind for the rest of the film. Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), two marijuana manufacturers and distributors, are meant to illicit feelings of the lovable outlaws – yes, what they’re doing is illegal, but they’re trying not to hurt people, and really, they’re only selling a plant, right? The entire movies banks on us jumping onboard with this idea, because the plot is simply not set up to support anti-heroes. I recognize that part of the idea of the film is that Ben, the pacifist of the pair, is going to have to cross some lines, whereas Chon is going to maybe mellow out, or maybe just be the sort of force of nature we can’t help but admire in the manner of 80’s action cinema heroes. The movie supports neither of those notions fully, however, giving neither character’s journey adequate screen-time, jumping into violence very quickly. People always tell us in the movie that Ben and Chon “have a nice, clean operation”, but really their organization resembles more closely a paramilitary hippy gang, at which point the viewer is left wondering why we should care about them at all.
Here to provide the answer to that question is is O (Blake Lively), a lover to both of them, and the wholly unnecessary narrator of the film, who promptly proceeds to get kidnapped with the sole aim (both within the narrative, and structurally in the film) of motivating her boyfriends. It isn’t that any of the above-mentioned actors do a bad job, they really don’t. None of their characters, however, are appealing in the least, and therefore lose their grip on the audiences attention in no time at all.
On the other side of the coin, you have the supporting cast. John Travolta, Benicio del Toro, and Salma Hayek are all enjoyable to a fault, willing to push their roles’ believability to the absolute limit as they scream, gesticulate wildly, or simply squint menacingly. Had the movie simply been about them, it could have been precisely the sort of wild abandon summer madness that provides some of the purest entertainment cinema can provide. Put up against a grim, and occasionally over-serious context, however, they simply seem like they’re in the wrong movie.
Oliver Stone’s direction is, without a doubt, inventive and exciting. The camera goes from black and white to Technicolor, and from impressive helicopter shots to the more personal handheld shot from one sudden cut to the next. What this high-octane camerawork is meant to do, however, is ultimately unclear. If it’s meant to simply convey excitement, the movie’s effect is comparable to somebody using a really wild vocabulary and infectious energy to tell a pretty dull story. In the end, the movie is disappointing, because that terrific effort from the director, and some of the actors, could quite simply have been channeled into something with more worthwhile content. As could, incidentally, your attention and time.