For anyone who has been wondering where the Oliver Stone of the 1990’s went, you need look no further than Savages to find him. He hadn’t gone, he was just hiding. After a long string of respectable but curiously neutered fare like World Trade Center and W, it appeared that the coke-addled cinematic mercenary of Natural Born Killers and U-Turn had permanently vanished. Unfortunately, watching Stone’s brutal and unforgiving visualization of Don Winslow’s twisty, pulpy crime novel only reminds that sometimes you really can’t go back home. Grim, ugly and emotionally bankrupt, Savages bears the unfortunate distinction of being this summer’s most unpleasant and disappointing event.
The film begins with one of the most dazed and apathetic narrations ever rolled out for a crime thriller, with Blake Lively’s airy, vapid O (short for Ophelia, or maybe orgasm, it’s not always clear) suggesting that time and space may be a bit liquid in this story. She may be alive or she may be dead, she says, but just because she’s speaking doesn’t make her safe. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, because by the end of this thing there’s literally boat loads of people dead, maimed, and physically/emotionally destroyed. O isn’t counted among them—despite enduring grueling torture at the hands of Benicio Del Toro—because Lively never convinces us she was alive to begin with. A daffy darling hanging out with two disparate drug manufacturers and bedding them both, O is barely a sketch of a human being and Lively never lifts her out of flat representation because she’s got no dramatic soul, ironic considering her flattering last name.
Of course, Lively’s emptiness isn’t so noticeable because Stone has surrounded her with more anemic examples of the young guard in Hollywood. Take for example, the two young men she resides with. Chon (Kitsch) is the young war vet who supplied the organic base for the special synthesized weed he produces with his buddy Ben (Aaron Jonhson), an environmentally-minded, philanthropic botanist who doesn’t mind operating on the other side of the law if he benefits. The two also don’t seem to mind sharing Lively with one another. Given how mentally and spiritually wispy she is, it’s clear that the only thing they are sharing is her body.
Poor Taylor Kitsch seems like a decent guy, trying his best to break out in a Channing Tatum-esque bid for success, but I’m not sure he’s going to make it. I liked him well enough in John Carter, but here his lack of experience and natural charisma hinder his portrayal of Chon. Chon comes off as thuggish and opportunistic on the page, but the film pitches him at the level of an amoral action hero and Kitsch can’t keep up. It doesn’t help that he doesn’t have chemistry with Lively—although, no one does or could—or Johnson, whose Ben is the most morally compelling until the third act also renders him a brutal killing machine. Johnson, for his part, can’t seem to get into the headspace of the character, but that’s mostly down to Stone’s shifting sands that never keep still.
The script and story are thick with the tantalizing twists, betrayals, and the potential for moral and personal chaos, as crime and necessity for survival splinter these already poisoned people. This maelstrom of destruction is initiated by Elena (Salma Hayek), head of a Mexican drug cartel that wants to strong-arm the boys into working for her. When they decide to retire their product instead of joining the team, she sends her creepy, wolfish henchman Lado (Del Toro) to kidnap O and force their hand. Lado, a curious beast of a man, puts Lively through some very unsavory and viscerally unpleasant duress, much of it captured for Chon and Ben to see. Although they could cut their losses, leave the girl, and move on, they devise a complex plan to get the ransom money, involving a scheme to smuggle the funds from Elena herself.
The entire landscape gets more tangled with a duplicitous DEA agent (John Travolta) and a stoned hacker/banker (Emile Hirsch) along for the ride. What worked on the page and formed a messy but immediate plunge into the slippery slope of courting evil and immorality, becomes a shooting gallery of sloppy style and bullish violence and under-handed narrative tricks. Stone doesn’t have much he wants to say here, mostly. he’s trying to recapture the noirish, low-key nerviness of U-Turn. All he manages in Savages is a one-note hysteria that cannot mask the fact we don’t like or truly sympathize with a single character, no matter the attempts at nuance
Del Toro, Hayek and Travolta bring a certain gravitas to the proceedings that will prevent Savages from sinking completely to the bottom of the trash-dvd bin, but they cannot rescue it. Hayek, lovely as ever and alternating as maternal and formidable, fares the best while Del Toro and Travolta eventually spiral out into camp, which would work if Stone hadn’t already strangled the life out of the enterprise.
It is an uncomfortable but acknowledged truth that watching characters crumble and break can be fascinating.What Stone fails to grasp here is that it’s only fascinating if we, the audience, can connect with and struggle against that demolition, rooting for the people onscreen to unmoor themselves from their fate. Pity he’s given us a gang about as sympathetic as crash-test dummies. We see them headed for the wall, watch them collide, and mostly don’t care. No amount of tricky editing or drug-fueled visual trips can salvage that.