DIR: Oliver Stone • WRI: Oliver Stone, Don Winslow, Shane Salerno • PRO: Mortiz Borman, Eric Copeloff • DOP: Daniel Mindel • ED: Joe Husting • Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta
Oliver Stone is known for making pulpy crime thrillers that focus on the American experience, drugs and casual violence. With Savages, Stone is not only working with familiar material, he’s also trying to update it for a new, young audience. However, he misses the inherent quality of his original work and instead makes something entirely different. Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch play two cannabis growers from Laguna Beach, California. Taylor Kitsch is an ex-soldier who runs the heavier, more dangerous side of the business whilst Aaron Johnson looks after the botanical and legitimate side. Between them is Blake Lively, a young, pampered woman who maintains a polygamous relationship with both. They keep the authorities on side by regularly bribing DEA agent John Travolta and maintain a peaceful status quo. Everything is beautiful for the free spirits until Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek want to move in on their territory. What begins as a violent show of force soon deteriorates into a hostage situation when Kitsch / Johnson’s love interest is taken captive.
Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson’s characters are, as often mentioned in the film, two parts of a whole person. Where Kitsch is angry and vengeful, Johnson is more conciliatory and pliable. This means, however, they’re not fully-rounded characters. Both seem to have one speed throughout and makes their performances flat and repetitive. Blake Lively, aside from The Town, has yet to give a performance that sets her apart. This is no different. The real stars of Savages are Benicio Del Toro’s flamboyant psychopath and Salma Hayek’s domineering cartel boss. Del Toro twiddles his signature moustache and growls with a thick Mexican accent throughout that makes him the most entertaining person to watch. Likewise, Salma Hayek plays a villainous, controlling gangster so well that it’s hard to believe she hasn’t been played similar before.
Oliver Stone’s direction and photographic choices harken back to Natural Born Killers and JFK, fusing black-and-white with oversaturated colours to make a landscape that is his own. While this may have come across as inventive ten years ago, now it looks jarring and confusing. It’s not that it’s hard to follow the action, it’s the sharp contrast between styles – varying wildly between grungy handheld to sweeping panoramic shots. As well as this, the film’s script is also all over the place. It’s fairly evident that the screenplay had many hands work on it as it’s completely disjointed – just like the entire film. Here and there, the dialogue spouts Buddhist mantras and Dalai Lama teachings that make it sound like rejected lines from Point Break. Mixed with this is Kitsch’s faux-military speak during action sequences and John Travolta’s fast-talking DEA agent’s pleading for mercy when things go awry. Overall, Savages is an uneven but decent attempt by Oliver Stone to update himself for the new age. The film’s disjointed pacing breaks up the flow and ends with an unsatisfying twist. If the script had been given over to one person instead of being put through three, it may have gone some way to being more cohesive.