'Savages': Don't Get Stone-d
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Prior to seeing the messy thriller, "Savages," I was hearing from more than a couple of people that the movie, adapted from a well-regarded crime thriller by novelist Don Winslow, would mark the return of, and I quote, "the Oliver Stone we all know and love." To which my immediate (which is to say knee-jerk) response was "What Oliver Stone we all know and love?"
About five minutes or so into this movie, its narrator character, a young woman named Ophelia who, rejecting Shakespearean baggage, has shortened her name to O, is describing what sex is like with one of her boyfriends, the angry Iraq and Afghanistan vet Chon, and she says, "I had orgasms. He had wargasms." And I thought, "Oh, that Oliver Stone." The Oliver Stone who put Charlie Sheen on the terrace of a New York City apartment and had him ask "Who am I?" to the dawn. Yeah. Speaking strictly for myself, I'm not sure just how much I've missed that Oliver Stone.
Nor, for that matter, have I missed the Oliver Stone who takes two hours and ten minutes to tell a crime story that would/could have maintained a much higher level of interest at something like an hour and forty, but that Oliver Stone has never gone away. In the hands of "Wall Street" and "Natural Born Killers" director Stone -- who collaborated on the screenplay with Winslow and Shane Salerno -- what might have played well as a tight cross-and-double-cross volley between very-not-good and somewhat-considerably-nicer illegal drug concerns, instead unspools as a needlessly digressive, self-second-guessing, stop-and-start half slog in which whatever empathy you might feel for the ostensible heroes is likely to be undercut by one's eye-rolling at how, well, slow they are.
I suppose the fact that they're stoned a lot accounts for the fact that they're slow, but that's hardly a tolerable excuse; haven't they ever heard about "don't get high on your own supply?" I guess not, just like the protagonists in latter-day zombie movies have to figure out the shoot-them-in-the-head move afresh. In any event, "they" are Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), best friend growers of incredibly high quality weed, and two sides of the same coin: Chon is the "wargasm" guy and Ben likes to take his profits and, as one characters sneeringly puts it, "Go all Bono" in impoverished countries with them. And, in what many will recognize as a very Old Bohemian trope (the girl of the trio does indeed bring up "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"), they share the affections of O, a beautiful, poor little rich girl (Blake Lively).
Their California paradise is encroached upon, most harrowingly, by an expansionist Mexican drug cartel that's very into scary masks and torture and decapitation and stuff. These nasty folk are portrayed with droll, drooling, scenery-chewing relish by the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, and Demián Bichir. In between the two factions is a cheerfully corrupt DEA agent, John Travolta, who deftly shrugs off a reasonably juicy character role.
Unfortunately, the earnest kids are a bit of a drag, both in the character and the acting departments: Kitsch and Johnson's line readings generate less interest than their facial hair, and Lively comes off like the underachiever's answer to Gwyneth Paltrow. It was probably a mistake to introduce viewers to a crucial element in the narrative's bloody chess game relatively early on and then have the mellow dudes take so long to figure it out.
Never one for streamlining, Stone slathers on the operatic sensibility for drawn-out killing and torture scenes, the better to explicate the ever-mutating meaning of the film's title and how it relates at varying times to its characters. And while some of the incidental musings on power and corruption and lawlessness can be fleetingly diverting ("When Hillary Clinton grows up she wants to be her," Travolta's character observes of a particularly merciless drug cartel queen), the film often gets its head stuck so far up its morally ambiguous fundament that it forgets all manner of other ABCs of narrative convention (e.g., just how did Chon and Ben end up getting invited to observe a torture session thrown by people who are, in fact, their most mortal enemies, anyway?), and this gets pretty frustrating. Frustration turned to irritation by the time the thoroughly anti-climactic, can't-make-up-its-mind dénouement finally rolls around. Moviegoers still invested in an Oliver Stone they know and love may not agree, but I think they're reaching.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.