More or Less, It Just Kills Your Buzz
Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando
In his review for Savages, the latest from director Oliver Stone, A.O. Scott writes, "The thing about spending time with potheads is that if you’re not stoned yourself, it can get kind of dull, and Ben and Chon, cool as they are, are not always scintillating company." Scott's observation about these characters is a perfect illustration of my feelings on the film as a whole. The word "savages" is spoken numerous times on screen and while grisly actions do occur, the most savage experience that this film offers is having to sit through it.
Savages offers a pro-marijuana stance as a business model: Grow the best pot, sell and distribute it with a minimum amount of violence, and use your proceeds to build schools in less fortunate civilizations. The leaders of this lucrative business are Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), best friends who could not be more dissimilar. Ben is the idealist hippie who believes in world peace and helping others. Chon is a war veteran who uses violence as a method of solving even the most simple of problems. Together, these men share a girlfriend named "O", for Ophelia (played blandly by Blake Lively), who also narrates the story. Voice-over narration is hit or miss for me in movies, and in Savages, it does nothing but hurt the action on screen. Take, for example, one of the opening scenes: O and Chon are having sex and as a way of explaining the type of man Chon is, she states "I have orgasms, Chon has war-gasms." Very insightful.
After a lengthy introduction to these less-than-desireable characters, the Mexican cartel arranges a meeting with Ben and Chon to discuss a partnership with their business. When Ben and Chon refuse their offer, the cartel kidnaps O to force Ben and Chon into working with them. The rest of the film becomes a long, drawn-out examination of how these two men will get back the woman they both love. Of course to do this they need to be stoned for most of the running time - because if you're going to kill people, you might as well do it carefree, right?
While most of the film lacks any real spark of life there are two performances that stand out, the most surprising of which is John Travolta as a corrupt D.E.A. agent named Dennis. He's an informant to both Ben and Chon, as well as the cartel, and he's not been this good in years. It's a reminder that when given the right role, as he was with Pulp Fiction - a film that is far superior to Savages - Travolta can shine. In addition, Benicio del Toro gives his most amusing performance since The Usual Suspects as Lado, the cartel's primary enforcer. Yes, his character is brutal and does despicable things, yet there is something oddly comic about how he carries himself throughout Savages. He's having a good time, and we have a good time watching him, despite his evil tendencies.
These performances illustrate the film's biggest crutch: The villains are more interesting than the heroes. Many movies have fallen into this trap before, where the characters we're supposed to be rooting for are the ones we hope will be killed off as quickly as possible. Ben and Chon would be better as supporting players, and even then only in small bits. On top of that, O wears out her welcome within the first five minutes, but we're stuck with her until the bitter end. Lively does nothing to make O compelling, which is a major problem considering she's the driving force behind everything that happens.
This is a film that tries to be serious yet doesn't take itself seriously. The violence, while awful to watch, is actually quite minimal, and the rest of the film focuses on the characters trying to get back to a sort of utopia that you never quite believe in. For a film that has a running time of two and a half hours, Savages is a prime example of a story that's less than half-baked.