Movie Review: "Savages" by Ben Foutch

Director: Oliver Stone
Stars: Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Emile Hirsch and John Travolta
Rated: R
Run Time: 130 min

Savages is a satisfying, yet slightly disappointing effort from legendary director, Oliver Stone.  The last time we saw this kind of gritty, violent material from Stone was probably Natural Born Killers  which was released in 1993.  So, needless to say, I have been excited for this film since the first trailer surfaced.  I left the theater feeling a little underwhelmed, but was still happy about being $9.25 poorer.   Supported by an interesting cast and propelled by a no holds barred love story, Savages stumbles through the finish line due to a less than stellar script and uneven pacing.

Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Cho (Taylor Kitsch) are marijuana entrepreneurs who won't play ball with the Mexican cartel. Feeling disrespected, drug kingpin, Elena (Salma Hayek), decides to kidnap Ben and Cho's love interest, O (Blake Lively). Not wanting to play by the rules, they decide to take O back the hard way. Their quest for vengeance involves extorting an FBI agent (John Travolta), outwitting one of Elen'a henchmen (Benicio Del Toro), while leaving a trail of bodies in their wake.

The main problem with the film, from my perspective, is that it wasn't savage enough. It is certainly dark, violent and offensive, but it could have been a little more over the top.   For every adrenaline pumping scene, there is about twenty-five minutes of exposition. This is due to the development of all the side characters and subplots that both help and hinder the film. Since this is based off of a novel, I can see how this would be the case. It feels too ambitious for its own good. We have numerous side characters that are more interesting than the main characters and have to give them screen time (which I'm thankful for), but their conflicting interests and rivalries get muddled with a constrained run time.

Sounds pretty negative so far, but there are a lot of great things about the film. Benecio Del Toro and Salma Hayek proudly display their acting chops (best performances in this film) and it is nice to finally see Taylor Kitsch show more confidence in front of the camera (probably due to Stone's direction). Blake Lively doesn't play the standard victim which allows the different victim/captor relationships to develop into some interesting dynamics. Aside from some of the intense violence, It's the characters and their relationships that make this movie worth its price tag.  It almost feels like the Tarantino scripted True Romance, slime coated by the greasy and sadistic Natural Born Killers.  I kind of feel like reading the novel now.

The style is also what keeps this sexy/twisted love story above water. Oliver Stone is an auteur and it is refreshing to see a film that doesn't look standard (my eyes are on you Webb). The use of an intense, saturated color spectrum and dramatic editing techniques will probably give this film a longer life by setting it apart from other drug/crime thrillers. His artistic use of color gave all of the blood splatter a vibrant quality which highlighted the primal blood-lust that drives the narrative.

While we don't really get a sense of why Ben and Cho love O so much, it really is irrelevant. Savages displays the extremes at which people will go through to protect and obtain the things that they desire.  The movie is full of death, and Ben's corruption through the course of the film feels much like our desensitization from all of the on-screen depravity, but at the same time the movie never feels like it is extreme enough.  It's not a great film, yet it easily sets itself apart from most of the standard fare that disappears like a fart in the wind. The question you should ask yourself is: how far would you go?