Original US release date: July 6, 2012
Production budget: $45,000,000
Worldwide gross: $82,966,152
Savages is the third Oliver Stone film for which I’ve done a #ThrowbackThursday in recent months, with the first being Born on the Fourth of July (found here) and the second being Platoon (which you can find here). Stone has over forty years of experience in directing film and is best known for his political thrillers based upon true – and very well documented – historical occurrences. Savages – one of his more recent efforts – is a departure from that as he tackles a fictional tale based upon the book of the same name by Don Winslow.
The story revolves around the trio of friends and lovers O (short for Ophelia), Chon, and Ben (Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively). The three of them share a double relationship (both men love O and she reciprocates, with all three being fully aware and supportive of the arrangement) as well as a marijuana business that operates both legal and illegal branches. When Chon and Ben run afoul of the Mexican cartel, they find that they may be in over their heads as they discover themselves being dragged into the seedy underworld of the “savages” . . . and O along with them.
Much like with war films, films that center on the drug world have a hard time distinguishing themselves from other films that cover similar ground, often hitting the same story beats, the same character arcs, and the same basic dialogue as many of the others. Savages is guilty of this in some ways but manages to rise above it in others. The film’s greatest asset is its character development as well as the cast that brings those characters to life.
For the most part, the characters in the film are believable and unusually complex for this type of film, of which many keep their focus on the ins and outs of the dealings of the business and their consequences rather than the relationships and personal motivations of the people involved. The three primary protagonists are good people at their cores, despite being involved in a shady business. None of them wish to harm anyone and Ben has even taken great pains to put his product in the hands of people who need it for medical purposes. Despite their mostly-good intentions, their natural greed is enough justification in their own minds to get involved in some illegal operations as well. Even with a corrupt police detective (John Travolta, in perhaps the most cookie-cutter of all of the main characters) under their thumb, the trio doesn’t handle things with a vast amount of intelligence and it naturally comes back to bite them.
Of equal complexity is the principal antagonist Elena, as played by Salma Hayek. Elena is ruthless in the running of her drug cartel, but she isn’t without her softer sides. She shows unexpected and genuine sympathy for O as O is drawn into Elena’s world. As we discover that Elena has an estranged daughter (Sandra Echeverría) it becomes apparent that she sees O as a potential substitute, and the audience is left to wonder whether or not that may actually be an attainable goal. In either case, Elena is an unconflicted villain who still has a photo of her daughter set as her laptop wallpaper, adding greatly-appreciated depth to a character who would have been a walking cliché in lesser hands than Stone’s.
The actors who have been tasked with portraying these characters turn in charismatic performances that draw the eye to the screen and the ear to the dialogue. Objectively speaking, if one were to look at the movie from the perspective of the script only, it would not necessarily come across as particularly entertaining or compelling. On paper, it isn’t all that different from a hundred other drug movies. But Stone’s sensibilities and his cast’s abilities elevate the material and make it more watchable and engaging than it otherwise might have been.
In addition, I can’t do a review of this film without discussing the ending. That’s going to be tricky without spoiling it for those of you who haven’t seen it, but I’m going to try it, anyway. I have not read Don Winslow’s book and I am completely ignorant regarding the differences between it and Stone’s adaptation. As a result, I have no idea if the ending for the film is taken directly from the original source, but it’s one of the more bizarre climaxes I have ever seen, and if it wasn’t changed from the novel, it should have been. Audiences come to expect certain things from a film focused on the drug trade such as this one, and it’s clear that the desired ending for the story would likely not have satisfied those expectations for many. So, Stone tries to have it both ways. Maybe in that vein, it works. But in taking this route, Stone gives up on ensuring that his film stands apart from others of its ilk and stoops to the mindless tropes that have long plagued the genre. On top of that, the film’s running time is also extended by approximately ten minutes as a result, and it’s ten minutes that are narratively wasted.
Savages is not a bad film, but it also doesn’t take advantage of its potential to fully rise far above the typical drug movie fare. In some ways, it succeeds – largely due to the supremely game cast and their characters – but in other ways, Stone is happy to root in the mud with the others, leaning on tired dialogue and uninspired gunplay to fill out the empty spaces of the film. If not for the ending – as unexpected as it was – I would be heaping more praise upon the overall product. But, as it stands, Savages is a mixed bag and a mediocre inclusion upon the resumes of all involved, even if the cast has plenty to brag about.
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