There won’t be a film that leaves me more conflicted in 2012 than Oliver Stone’s Savages. As a whole there’s simply too much awful dialogue, unfocused narrative and “Tony Scott circa Domino” levels of over-editing to forgive.

And yet in days passed I’ve felt the film sticking with me. There’s serious meat on these diseased bones. Both Benicio del Toro and John Travolta turn in their best performances in years. They’re not the only ones, Salma Hayek does great work as well. And, if you’re willing to dig beyond the superficial, there’s a magnetic crime story at play. Unfortunately these aspects do not make the shittiness any less shitty. So while Savages is at times engaging and even great, it’s also a fucking mess. A film that isn’t sure where it’s going and doesn’t know what to do once it gets there, so much so that it has not one but two endings. That’s Savages. Savages. Savages. The film says “savages” often, like they could lose the rights at any minute.

Based on the novel of the same name by Don Winslow, Savages (“these people are savages”) is about two guys with the right minds for the wrong business. Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are best friends and proficient marijuana growers along the greater West coast. Chon’s a retired PTSD-stricken Navy S.E.A.L. while Ben’s a hotshot Berkeley grad with designs on improving the world. Lying quite literally between them is Ophelia (Blake Lively) – a beach-bunny stoner chicklet the two men share emotionally as well as sexually.

Many of Savages’ (“you and I, we’re savages”) issues have to do with Ophelia and Lively’s performance. Ophelia (or simply O) is also the film’s narrator, and an unfortunate one at that. Narration is a well this screenplay visits far too often. I’d venture that the first half hour is roughly 75% narration, and Lively’s delivery couldn’t be more noticeable. Every piece of information the film conveys is delivered in the most monotonous, monotone way possible. Even with one of the year’s best so-bad-its-good lines (“I make orgasms, he makes WARGASMS”) Lively’s delivery is flat – as if she’s reading straight off a page. It’s not until a deal with the Mexican cartel goes bad, and O is kidnapped, that Savages (don’t you know, we’re dealing with savages”) dials down the narration to a more tolerable level. Even so, almost none of the information up to that point has come from the actual film. O has spelled it all out for us amidst a sputtering clip show.

Equally disappointing is Kitsch. If the man never becomes a star it will not have been for lack of opportunity, but his acting choices here do him no favors. I felt John Carter‘s script had done him a disservice in that film; here it’s the other way around. I want to believe his distant stare and disengaged performance are on account of his character’s post-Afghanistan trauma, but it’s not. Like Lively, he couldn’t crack this character. They’re two entirely surface-level performances.

Aaron Johnson fares much better, but Ben and Chon get lost in the shuffle once O is kidnapped. Slowly but steadily the film focuses more on the Baja Cartel, led with graceful ambivalence by Salma Hayek’s Elena. It’s Elena’s arc that feels like classic Stone. Inheriting a criminal empire in her husband’s demise, she’s the best kind of villain – one convinced of her own righteousness. Her scenes with capo Lado (a spectacular Benicio del Toro) are some of the film’s best. Elena and her crew have all the makings of a great rise and fall story, and the film captures shades of it. But Ben, Chon and Ophelia feel secondary when there are better performers off playing with cooler toys.

These stories intersect, obviously. But I couldn’t get into Ben and Chon’s quest for O. Part of that might have to do with Lively’s lack of liveliness, but it’s also attributed to how unconcerned Stone is with this every aspect of that story. The scenes with Elena, Lado and the cartel are the ones that feel the most alive. The editing is scaled back, the actors have more time to deliver their lines, you get the sense that this was Stone’s “in,” where he became engaged. And as the narrative jumps around it just feels like Stone’s working his way back to his interests as well as his strengths.

People coming out of Savages are going to talk about del Toro’s performance: it’s cunning, evil, slimy and a wholehearted reminder of why he’s such a great actor. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t relay that John Travolta’s Dennis, a greasy DEA middleman, is equally remarkable. Savages (“these aren’t human beings, they’re savages”) has only one irredeemable character (Lado), with the rest being shades of gray. Dennis’ motivations aren’t completely selfish, he just also happens to be a greaseball pushing beyond his means. Travolta hits all the right notes in what is his most unflattering performance (sans hairpiece) to date. It should come as no surprise that the best scene in the film is shared between he and del Toro.

Savages (“um, savages”) is by no means a great film, but there’s enough great in there to warrant a rental. Oliver Stone is an artist who, even when not firing on all cylinders, offers more compelling work than most directors today. In the case of this film, and aside from two incredibly powerful turns, that still doesn’t amount to very much. Confined to the source material, it’s clear Stone wasn’t fully able to tell the story he really wanted to tell.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

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