Savages: directed by Oliver Stone; written by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow and Oliver Stone
Reviewing Oliver Stone’s significantly frenetic Savages poses some difficulty. For one, I tend to be so obstinately literal in the way I process information I end up being expressly against subscribing to the notion of a term like “guilty” pleasure – since the inherent feature in all things pleasure is the eschewing of all things disagreeable, like guilt. And, I’ve seen a few folks who appreciated the hijinks at work in the film write off their appreciation with the more “justifiable” edict of it being “guilty pleasure”. For two, the film itself is so often, deliberately fascinated by the hazily trashy (and this is, after all, the same man who directed U-Turn) that I’m not certain that I may not either be overestimating its purpose or in any case not as adept in enjoying the silly garishness which the film presents the audience with. But then, of course, I must have been well versed enough in Stone-weirdness because I did enjoy the nuttiness of Savages.
I’ve been having this bizarre about-face lately where I’m becoming more and more appreciative of the way conventionally serious issues are injected with significant bouts of levity. Savages stays true to its title and makes good on the overwhelming barrage of brutality the name suggests. And, on some level I wonder if I should, perhaps, object to this and condemn Stone for superfluous violence but then the name of the film demands it and the violence is only superfluous inasmuch as the characters don’t need to be so violent but they are anyway. But the fact that they are unnecessarily violent is part of the story. Which leads me to another interesting feature of the film – the essentiality of everything within the frame. Sort of. I’d be lying if I said that the film is especially coherent or cohesive on its own, but within the strictures of what it is and what (I suspect) it aims to be it doesn’t waste any of itself. Even the overwhelmingly pat narration via Blake Lively’s O (just as frustrating and goatish as she is in her most famous incarnation – Serena Van der Woodsen) isn’t quite as objectionable as it could be because in a very odd way Stone doesn’t necessarily make her a better performer but directs her in a way that her limitations become just right for film.
....more below about Savages on-point ensemble, its weirdness which works and my reasons for liking it...
The entire cast is on point. Even if Taylor Kitsch (an actor I like, even if he’s not very range-y) seems stuck playing in a tight register which runs from A to B he works, especially opposite Aaron Johnson who gets to be the most emotive of the three “leads”. The three are buoyed significantly by work from a strong supporting cast. I can’t remember the last time John Travolta has been as easily pleasant to watch. Benecio Del Tero attacks his grotesque villain role with a gusto that’s remarkable to behold and Demián Bichir (playing maybe, probably, the most honest character) does some good things with little times. The acting standout, though, is Salma Hayek as twisty, lurid, bizarre, sensational and gratifying as the film itself. The film, and Hayek, also manage to one-up the audience beautifully by presenting Hayek’s drug cartel leader Elena as not just a titillating quasi-madam. Elena’s arc unfolds with some key emotional character beats which aren’t treated with the irony you might expect from something like Savages.
(And, this doesn't fit with the actual review but I need to talk about Salma Hayek's revolting wig which threatened to take me out of the film with its shapelessness but even that the film makes good on because SPOILER ALERT in a particularly emotional moment her character takes it off and weeps and I wanted to stand up and cheer because, damn, that thing was hideous.)
And, really, it’s so easy to scoff at much of Savages. For example, I’m still not altogether (okay, at all) certain as to what kind of a name is Chon (more the fault of the original novelist than Stone and company). And because the film’s tone isn’t biting enough to be caustic it’s difficult to view the film as a sort of satirical piece. Still, it’s problematic once you start responding to a film with characters ranging from lazily illicit to effectively despicable with cries of it endorsing the idleness of people it espies. For one, the line as to what morals a film should promulgate (and how) are too blurred in the first place – and the edict of films and their didactic necessity don’t appeal to me much. Furthermore, even as Stone doesn’t take pains to vilify the lifestyles of his main characters it’s difficult to prove that he specifically presents an endorsement of them. Savages itself seems so focused on presenting as many lurid thrills (and incidental silliness) as possible, it’s content to distance itself – but barely – from its characters inclinations and entertain us while we watch them meander through their personal silliness.
Good Thing Going / B