The real tragedy of Savages is not in its script, which deals with the pain involved in violent behavior, nor in its flaws, which themselves are minor, but in the fact that the film has been completely overshadowed by the usual studio-bred drivel of the summer. Truth is, those films largely lack the one thing that Savages has in abundance – style. One glimpse at Savages’ marketing speaks volumes of the film’s killer presentation. What would otherwise be a rather ordinary film has been molded by co-writer and director Oliver Stone into further proof of the director’s edgy brilliance, delivering in surprisingly big and bold ways.
Based on the book by Don Winslow, Savages follows O (Blake Lively), lover to two marijuana producers Ben and Chon (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch respectively), who are best described as two sides of the same man – Chon is a grizzled, violent soldier, Ben an earthly, peace-loving dude. As the pair discuss quitting the business for good, their enterprise is threatened with takeover by another, larger drug cartel, led by the ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek) and policed by her right hand man Lado (Benicio Del Toro). Ben and Chon’s DEA pal Dennis (John Travolta) advises them to back off, but when the pair meets with the cartel face-to-face, they suggest leaving their business to them completely. Not to be discouraged, Elena kidnaps O and demands the two meet her proposal in full. The dealers realize that they must fight fire with fire if they ever want to see their beloved again.
There’s really no way to describe the aforementioned style of Savages than to watch it for yourself (see trailer below). To call it a crime drama would be a great disservice; in a film like this, directorial style completely supersedes genre. Stone’s use of constant, dynamic camera movement is both appropriate, lending the film a heightened sense of intensity, and, refreshingly, not as nauseating as most of the handheld cinematography of today’s films. Pitch-perfect casting, a touch of humor, and a fittingly vibrant color scheme are just a few of the many additions Stone brings to the material, highlighting themes of trust, love, betrayal, and most importantly, violence begetting more violence. The design has led to comparisons with Stone’s bold, controversial 1994 film Natural Born Killers, but apart from the clear connection in authorship, I found few stylistic similarities between the two. If anything, Savages is far more toned and level-headed, retaining the uniqueness without being as blunt and intrusive as the former.
Savages toys with the polar opposite nature of its leads, letting the more live-and-let-live Ben dictate the pair’s non-action during the first act, before ceding to Chon’s more violent approach in the second. Sadly, the character exploration is brought down by some uneven pacing; many of the film’s action sequences lack urgency, and its first and second acts have a tendency to meander when faced with recounting what the members of the drug cartel are up to. Perhaps a tighter edit might’ve served to iron out the film’s somewhat lengthy kinks.
What sticks with the viewer most is Savages’ climax, which hits home the movie’s defining message. On the surface, we see a happy ending with everything tied up neatly. Beneath it, we see people torn apart by the things they’ve done, and that villainy, distrust, savagery are all still very much at large. Without giving too much away, pay particularly close attention to how certain characters never actually appear together in the film’s final shots, and how it relates to the new status of their relationships.
Savages is destined to be one of Oliver Stone’s most underappreciated gems. It’s an entertaining and uniquely designed film that deserves far more recognition than it’ll ever get. Universal took a huge gamble pushing the film’s release date to the opening weekend of July, pitting the film against the decidedly less sincere Spider-Man reboot. While their bet didn’t quite pay off, Savages nonetheless stands far taller in my mind as another solid feather in Stone’s cap. And in a way, this was the perfect movie to release during the hot summer climate, and after the massive heat wave we experienced early last month. When I saw the film opening weekend, quite a few people in the theater were ill at ease from the heat and became agitated at even the most insignificant distractions. As Randal from Clerks put it, “buncha savages in this town.”