Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Savages (2012) – Review

Review: Savages is a decent crime thriller with some good performance and action, but ultimately hindered by an awful ending and poorly developed characters. The film is about two independent pot distributors in California, Ben and Chon, and their shared girlfriend O. Ben is a peace-loving guy, who double-majored in botany and business, while Chon is an ex-Navy Seal. Their business is running smoothly and successfully until a Mexican cartel wants to partner with them, looking to expand their operation north of the border. Ben and Chon refuse, and so the cartel takes O hostage, setting Ben and Chon on a dangerous course as they try to get her back. What immediately sticks out about this film is director Oliver Stone’s visual style (it reminds me a lot of a Tony Scott film, but is also reminiscent of Stone’s Natural Born Killers, as if Stone is trying to recapture that films success and present it to a modern audience). Stone distorts the viewer’s perspective using quick cuts, image discoloration and black & white, all in an attempt to visually put the viewer in an anxious and uneasy position (resembling what the characters are feeling). The style in less capable hands could (and probably would) be distracting and even annoying, but Stone is skilled enough to employ it to the benefit of the film’s narrative. The problem, however, is that Stone does not develop the main characters quite enough, and thus the viewer is not fully invested and the visual style is not exploiting the viewer to its full effect. The relationship(s) between O, Chon and Ben is mostly told to the viewer through O’s narration throughout the film, rather than being shown visually. Stone does have some character moments between them, but their real bond is not really apparent from what the viewer sees (though, again, O tells us that they all love each other). Stone tries to convey this with three sex scenes, but most of the other scenes between O, Chon and Ben are mostly just exposition filled to push the story forward. However, without the emotional foundation the sex scenes are only physical and do not tap into a deeper more character driven emotional development for the viewer. Stone has a lot of plot to get through, and the film is just not structured efficiently enough to include satisfying character development to show in a meaningful way why O is so important to Chon and Ben, and why Chon and Ben love each other more than anyone else. But, Stone does present the narrative in an entertaining manner with fun supporting characters and well-staged action to keep the viewer interested and engaged. Plus, the story is compelling to a degree. The major flaw, however, with the film is its ending. SOME SPOILERS AHEAD – Stone tries to give the audience the best of both worlds – one with real consequences and one where everyone lives happily ever after (for the most part). The problem is that by doing this, Stone negates any emotional investment that the audience might have had in the film (which is already small to begin with due to the lack of good character development). The consequences ending is done to give the film a grand action sequence, which the film builds towards, but then by having it be just an imagined ending followed by sort of a cop-out ending (in comparison) the viewer feels cheated, and the characters feel even more hollow as the stakes were never real because there are no consequences. It makes the whole film sort of pointless. Either ending alone would have been fine, but by Stone giving both he negates the power of both – END OF SPOILERS. Savages is not a great crime thriller, but despite its poor ending and underdeveloped characters it still has enough good stuff (the negotiation scenes for example are the most interesting, as Stone sort of juxtaposes the seedy dealings of drug deals with the jargon and tactical strategy of big business) to make it entertaining and worth renting for genre fans.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: With each Oliver Stone film, the promise of a comeback (or return to his previous status as one of Hollywood’s best directors, as he was in the 1980s and 1990s) is again brought up. And again, with Savages, the promise is dashed. It seems to come down to Stone’s inability to give characters enough dramatic weight and the narrative focus – Alexander is un-engaging with poorly drawn characters, World Trade Center is rife with clichés and tear-jerking audience exploitation, W. is unpolished and uneven, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is again unfocused and dull. Savages is maybe overdone with too many story elements at the expense of the characters, again leaving the film kind of un-engaging (especially for those more interested in characters than action and style) pointing to Stone’s seeming inability to focus his narratives. Adam Peters’s score plays mostly a background role, emphasizing the narrative beats. The found music soundtrack stands out more, fitting the tone well. Daniel Mindel’s cinematography is very good. The film has a very mixed color palate, stylistically trying to match the scene specific tone in many cases. Mindel does a great job lighting the atmospheric scenes. Tomas Voth’s production design also compliments the tone, as his sets along with Mindel’s photography reinforce the emotional state of the characters and work to also push the audience into an equally anxious state. While the three leads in the film are decent (maybe bordering on flat), many of the supporting performances are very good. Emile Hirsch and Shea Whigham are great in small roles. Salma Hayek does good work portraying the vulnerability and power of the woman at the top of the cartel. John Travolta is very slimy and slippery as the DEA agent Dennis just looking to come out unscathed and ahead if possible. Benicio Del Toro is brilliant as Lado, a henchman who is looking for a bigger role. He plays Lado as a smart man who knows his business, but also ventures over the edge into psychopathic killer territory with sort of a menacing glee. His performance is the best aspect of the film. Blake Lively is adequate as O, but she is not emotionally engaging, and seems distant from what is happening to her (which is maybe because she is playing someone perpetually stoned?). Taylor Kitsch (continuing is streak of poor film role choices) is intense and does convey a deeper side with his eyes, but as stated above Chon is not given a lot of character moments. He is just stoic for the sake of clichéd lazy stereotyped characterization. The same can be said of Aaron Johnson. He is decent in the film, but plays Ben as the weak side of ‘Chon and Ben’, also relying on overused characterizations.

Summary & score: Savages can be called an entertaining decent crime thriller, but also yet another disappointing overall film from Oliver Stone. 6/10 

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