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Non-Review Review: Savages

I am torn. Savages feels as if Oliver Stone somehow found a way to stream his thoughts on celluloid for the world to devour at their leisure. It’s bright, vibrant, random, illogical, contrary, obtuse, surreal and visceral – often all at the same time. It’s far too uneven to earn an unqualified recommendation, as it’s a disorienting mess of a film at the best of times. However, it’s also consistently interesting, a strangely compelling. Savagesmight be too all over the map to ever be consistently great (or even good), but it is never boring.

That’s a savage mask!

Savages barely hangs together as a narrative film. In fact, that’s where the bulk of the flaws lie. The characters are painfully over-written and the plot depends far too much on double-cross and intrigue for its own good. In many respects, Savages feels overloaded, a little too packed with characters and conspiracies to really fit within the confines of a two-hour film, without seeming fit to explode at any given minute. The story itself seems at odds with Stone’s style and technique, and the two never really find a way to co-exist. It seems like they are constantly at war with one another.

You know there’s a problem with a film like this when you sympathise more with the bloodthirsty, torturing, raping, killing and necklacing Mexican drug cartel over the three kids selling dope to sick people. Our lead trio are played by a bunch of young actors to varying degrees of success, but they’re the root of the film’s problems. These are three cardboard cut-out archetypes. There’s the pacifist. There’s the hothead. There’s the girl with messed up issues. These aren’t any more complicated than the archetypes you’d find in a disposable slasher film.

Yep, so it’s a bit like The Hangover… except, you know, with more brutal murder and torture and less monkeys…

In a way, their shallowness kinda works with rapid-fire stream of thought style Stone brings to the film. The problem is that the script resists it. The script over-compensates for their shallowness, giving us awkward philosophical tracts and seemingly endless narration in an attempt to build character. “You don’t change the world,” the hothead tells the pacifist. “The world changes you.” Deep, man. Our narrator goes on and on about how great the three of them are and how they’ve got their stuff together, and how they’re fundamentally decent people.

The only problem is that dialogue is terrible, and Blake Lively can’t make it work. “I have orgasms,” she explains at one point. “Chon has war-gasms.” It’s supposed to be smart, but it’s just terrible, as if you’re waiting for a shot of her firing imaginary guns at the camera while winking. But she’s too busy “$%#!ing the war out of him”, her own radical post-traumatic stress counselling technique. The movie demonstrates it’s working wonders. She talks about the pacifist, telling us his philosophy is “Buddhist”, while also assuring us that the hothead’s philosophy is “baddest.”

I can only imagine what the first draft looked like…

It’s the type of faux!deep nonsense that you get when an intelligent writer tries to use a less literate character to deliver a philosophical point they feel strongly about. It’s an attempt to couch a statement in a way that feels like it could organically come from that kind of person – it’s blending Eastern philosophy with valley girl chic, and it’s often quite terrible. It gets so bad that the audience doesn’t even care about these three people caught in a war with the big and ominous cartel.

After all, the gangsters might be shallow archetypes, but at least they’re honest about it. Stone wisely surrounds his young leads with more competent elder actors, and its these cast members who turn in the best performances. Salma Hayek’s Elena is perhaps the most compelling and engaging character in the movie. She’s no more complex or sophisticated than the leads, but she gets massive points for rather brilliantly exposing just how incredibly shallow the trio are. She gets the single best line in the script, and it’s one that the movie might have been a bit wiser to pay more heed to, bu the movie instead struggles against her astute observation and trying to convince us that the three leads are actual more than just a bunch of entitled stereotypes.

It’s a common misconception that bad guys twirl their moustaches. Del Toro knows that real villains stroke their moustaches.

Benicio Del Toro plays the effective villain of the piece, who literally spends most of his screentime stroking his moustache and demonstrating that Tom Hardy hasn’t quite cornered the market on intense accented characters. Del Toro’s enforcer is almost ridiculously one-dimensionally evil, but the actor pitches his performance perfectly. This man is a violent and aggressive psychopath, a misogynist, a bully, a murderer and torturer. He couldn’t exude any more evil if he tried. Del Toro embraces the archetype, and produces a fascinating and compelling performance.

Demián Bichir has a nice small role as a cartel right-hand man, and John Travolta makes the most of a relatively tiny role as a DEA agent who has one priority alone: looking out for himself. These elder veterans do a much better job than Lively, Taylor or Kitsch. They seem to realise that they’re trapped inside something resembling a fevered dream, and embrace the elegant simplicity of their characters. While the script frantically pads these characters with monologues designed to craft the illusion of depth, the older actors are smart enough to accept that less is more, and to embrace the archetypes they inhabit, rather than struggling against them.

Grease is the word… to describe what they’re doing to the wheels of justice…

And yet, despite these fundamental problems, there’s something strangely hypnotic about the way Stone constructs the film. Lots of quick shots and ambient music. Occasionally he’ll switch filters or go for a weird close-up, or give us a nature shot, or a montage. He brutally juxtaposes the images on-screen and the soundtrack, setting a cartel execution to classical music, and keeping the score going as he transitions effortless to a shopping excursion.

There’s a wonderful energy all this, and it often seems like the movie is tripping over itself, as if it has so ethereal and quality that it can barely get ahold of itself. It’s occasionally frustrating, but it’s also strangely engaging. At one point, towards the end, Stone even gives himself a “do over”, as if literally editing the movie as we watch it. He decides that a certain scene doesn’t work, so he goes back and does it again, from a different angle, with a tweaked outcome.

It’s her way or the Hayek way…

Of course it’s all painstakingly scripted, but Stone does it with enough skill that the audience doesn’t know whether to be excited or appalled by his boldness. It seems as if Stone’s subconscious was chewing away on a movie about drug dealers, and his subconscious just sorta coughed the whole thing up in one chunk for his conscious mind (and ours) to parse. There are times when the movie seems to abandon its narrative, plotting and characters, and just becomes this melting pot of images, music and ideas. These are probably the strongest moments of the film – as Stone often feels trapped by the paint-by-numbers plotting and the shallow characters.

Watching the film, it seems almost as if Stone is discovering the film as we are. That works! That doesn’t work! Okay, but what if–? Hm, that was good, but then–? It’s an experience that is compelling, but also feels a little reckless. It’s rather unlike most films, and it takes a while to adapt to it. If you can let yourself get swept along, there are more than a few lovely moments to be found, surreal diamonds in the rough, like fragments of a barely-remembered dream. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover Stone had imagined the whole thing one night after reading the book, almost exactly as it turned out on screen.

I want some of what Stone was smoking..

Unfortunately, Savages isn’t nearly consistent enough to stand up to that sort of scrutiny. Stone’s style is fascinating, but the content itself is far too mundane to really suit it. It’s a hard film to wrap my head around. Truth be told, I am still trying to sort out precisely how I feel about it. It’s not a great film, and I’m not even sure I’d argue it’s strong enough to be a good film. But it is an interesting film, and one that will contain a few mercurial moments for a suitably open mind. The problem is that those diamonds are buried with an awful lot of coal.

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