REVIEW: Blake Lively Lets Air and Light into Oliver Stone's Heavy-Handed Savages
For the first three hours and 20 minutes, I was totally with Savages. During the middle two hours and 25 minutes, I was reasonably intrigued to see how it would all turn out. But through the final six hours and 48 minutes, I kept sneaking glances at my watch, just wishing that Oliver Stone would hurry up and cap off this wiggly-waggly tale of two marijuana-entrepreneur buddies, their shared girlfriend, and a host of Mexican drug baddies led by Salma Hayek wearing a black bobbed wig that’s half Cleopatra, half Bettie Page.
Savages isn’t really 12 hours and 33 minutes long – it’s actually only 8 hours and 22 minutes long – but there’s just no shaking the feeling that it would be so much better if Stone had made it trimmer and more taut and limited himself to the use of only 12 different types of film stock. It’s also not clear, exactly, why the movie exists in the first place: That creaky-wheel groan you hear throughout is the sound of Stone anxiously trying to have fun again, after several years of making desperately serious documentaries (the 2009 South of the Border), useless sequels (the 2010 Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) and observant but ultimately toothless semi-biopics (the 2008 W.). Savages is, in places, brutal in an old-school way, as if Stone were exercising muscles that have long been out of use. But if the movie is sometimes desperately alive, it’s also cluelessly shallow. Perhaps Stone wanted to make a violent entertainment that speaks to our current age, a time when ruthlessness and greed have reached irreversible proportions, a picture in which characters grow and change but perhaps do so too late. But Stone’s moralism, coupled with discreet but bloody beatings, shootouts and all manner of tawdry goings on, rings hollow. The picture is neither entertaining nor preachy – it is simply very loudly meh.
Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson star, respectively, as Chon and Ben, best pals who grow pot for a living in California and also willingly share the same girlfriend, a modern-day rich-hippie-girl free spirit known as O, short for Ophelia (Blake Lively). Chon is a war vet who does business by the tooth-and-claw method. Ben is a gentle sort who likes the pot business because it’s “green,” and he spends whatever money he makes doing good deeds in other parts of the world. (To suggest this, Stone treats us to images of Ben, with his ropy hair and razor-averse facial whiskers, teaching the alphabet or something to little naked tropical children.) Though Ben and Chon have been friends since high school, they appear to have little in common temperamentally. It’s O who connects them. Chon is a “baddist,” O explains in voice-over, while Ben is a “Buddhist.” “For me, together they are one complete man,” she goes on to explain. “The one thing they have in common is me. I’m the home they’ve never had.”
Trouble brews when Ben and Chon run afoul of some potential business associates, simply because the two refuse to bow to anyone’s bullying. By the time Benicio Del Toro shows up, looking puffy and dissolute and ill-tempered, you know some very bad things are gonna go down. John Travolta also shuffles in, intermittently, as a fast-talking, wheeler-dealer DEA guy with a shaved-stubble hairdo. And Hayek, as drug queenpin extraordinaire Elena, provides heavy doses of eye candy, lounging languidly in her extravagant south-of-the-border headquarters as she devises nasty punishments for anyone who might dare cross her.
Savages, based on the novel by Don Winslow, holds the essence of a compact, brutal little thriller. But somewhere along the way – perhaps the problem begins with the screenplay, written by Stone, Winslow and Shane Salerno – the story becomes unwieldy and overstuffed, taking not-very-surprising turns it doesn’t need to take. (The dialogue also includes some classic Stone-style howlers, as when del Toro asks to see Ben’s hands and then pronounces them “soft – like a woman’s!”) The key actors, particularly Kitsch and Johnson, try to give their characters a degree of roundness that doesn’t appear to have been written into those characters in the first place. And for people involved, at any level, in the drug trade, they come off as shockingly naïve. There’s a point at which Johnson’s Ben suddenly realizes he and Chon have become mixed up with some very bad people, and you want to ask where on Earth he’s been for the past 20 years.
In fact, even though Savages is a supremely macho tale of drug-dealing and extreme business practices, it’s actually the women who make it worth watching. Hayek makes the kind of villainess who’d be right at home in a late-’40s noir or a ’50s exploitation extravaganza – she purrs through her role like a take-no-prisoners kitten with very sharp teeth. And Lively continues her run as a young actress with an undeniable spark of something. She keys into O’s vulnerability and her rich-girl guilelessness: When O is mistreated (to put it mildly) by Hayek and her gang, she seems certain that her rich mommy can make it all better. We see how ridiculous that belief is, but it makes sense that O would cling to it, and Lively channels that wispy callowness as opposed to just playing a list of character traits. She’s touching, but in the lightest possible way, a sunbeam in the midst of Stone’s heavy-handed universe. O is the most civilized character in Savages, and Lively gives the most open, unstudied performance here. She’s an actress who’s sophisticated in ways she probably doesn’t even realize.