July 5, 2012


A wise man once said*, “If you have them in the first fifteen minutes, you have a movie.  If you have them in the last fifteen minutes, you have a hit.”  By that metric, Oliver Stone‘s Savages is neither a movie nor a hit.  It begins with an atrocious first act full of flat expository narration including one of the worst lines of dialogue I’ve ever heard: “I have orgasms.  He has wargasms.”  That’s a deep hole to dig out of, but Savages manages to do so with a strong, thoughtful, exciting middle section that explore where people derive their power.  And then the movie falls apart with an ending that erases all the hard work the film had accomplished.

Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are Laguna Beach-based marijuana kingpins who run the ideal business.  They have the finest product, deal fairly with all their employees and customers, and their skill sets compliment each other.  Ben is the crunchy-granola botanist who knows how to manufacture the high-quality pot, and he uses his proceeds to fund charitable endeavors.  Chon is the practical muscle who deals with the dangerous side of the business.  They work so well together that they’re in a healthy, happy polygamous relationship with O (Blake Lively).  Their perfect world is thrown into chaos when a brutal Mexican drug cartel run by Elena (Salma Hayek) initiates a hostile takeover by kidnapping O.  Ben and Chon must then figure out how to get their girl back and get out alive.


Savages gets off to an awful start with O’s horrible narration, which derives partly from Lively’s listless reading and partly from Stone, Shane Salerno, and Don Winslow‘s atrocious dialogue.  Stone should know better than to have one character flatly describe each new character rather than show us how that character behaves.  Granted, there’s a lot of ground to cover in the facets of Ben and Chon’s business, but there’s no reason for O to tell us the personalities of those involved.  Matters are made worse as we see Stone try to ape the ADHD-riddled editing style of Tony Scott.  It’s never as bad as Scott’s films, but Stone never captures the chaotic feel he’s going for.

However, we eventually acclimate to the direction as the ideas at the center of Savages begin to come to the forefront and O’s narration fades away.  While Stone has never shied away from being an overt propagandist (good non-documentary directors don’t tell you what you should think about an issue), he’s far more subtle in exploring the power dynamic of the various characters.  Elena’s right-hand man, Lado (Benicio Del Toro chewing every piece of scenery he can find), and his crew go under the guise of being gardeners.  In America, Hispanics are viewed as powerless laborers, but they can be mad tyrants as long as they keep to a particular business in a particular country.  The movie also does a nice job of comparing O, a woman whose very life depends on her male protectors, with Elena, a woman who has had to assume the position of a man in order to say in power.  I don’t agree with the film’s argument that women can only find power by either being with men or acting like them, but it holds true to the film’s exploration of how we view power.  It also appeals to how we view violence as power.  We may side with Ben’s view that compromise and reconciliation will yield peace, but Chon, an ex-soldier (the guy who has wargasms), knows there can only be domination in their business.

review-savages-salma-hayek blake-lively

Of course, the film makes a bit of a poor choice in selecting their business.  Dealing marijuana on a massive scale might be as violent and dangerous as depicted, but the drug itself doesn’t mirror the intensity of the conflict.  Stone and his co-writers may be trying to draw a biting irony, but pot undermines both the characters’ barbaric actions and Stone’s aggressive direction.  There’s a reason Tony Montana doesn’t blaze up a joint before going on a murderous rampage at the end of Scarface.

Savages requires pot because of the contrast between Ben and Chon.  Ben wouldn’t be involved in any other drug, although a harsher drug would show him to be an extreme hypocrite or deeply deluded).  But like Stone’s direction and the film’s other weaknesses, we get past the inconsistency because the action is solid, the ideas are worthwhile, and some of the performances are top notch.  Kitsch does a terrific job as a character who’s indulging his violent tendencies by using O’s kidnapping as an excuse.  Hayek makes for a great villain who also arouses our sympathy because the character has had to lose her relationship to her children in order to protect them.  And while Del Toro’s character may be one-dimensional, he’s endlessly entertaining (at times I liked to imagine Savages as a sequel to Traffic, and Del Toro’s character from Soderbergh’s movie had gone horribly astray).

And then it all falls apart at the end.  The ending plays as a giant, confused “fuck you” to the audience.  It almost feels like the ending is played out of order, since a different edit would yield a far more power for close rather than simply ditching the scenes altogether.  It’s an ending that leaves you laughing and shaking your head. In that way, Savages comes full circle.

Rating: C+


*I believe it was Paul Newman, but correct me if I’m wrong.

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  • David

    That quote is what Robert Mckee tells Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation.

    • Matt Goldberg

      Actually, his quote is “I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”

      I’m thinking of a different quote.

  • Kenneth Kaniff from Connecticut

    Is Taylor Kitscsh gritty in this movie?


    Um, Tony Scott has been aping Oliver Stone his entire career.

    • Matt Goldberg

      Actually, he hasn’t. Tony Scott made normal-looking movies until Enemy of the State/Man on Fire. Stone’s filmography is about half-and-half in terms of restraint. But the overblown colors and brightness coupled with using graphics (i.e. words and numbers) for dramatic impact is Scott’s territory.

      • Matty

        Not much for most of Scott’s work, but I find Spy Game endlessly watchable.

      • Alan

        What’s a “normal-looking” film? Are you saying it’s naturalism? Realism?

  • dave

    matt, you said the same thing after the first trailer…oliver stone is trying to copy tony scott’s style, it’s the other way around….and weed had to be the drug of choice here, if you can’t see that then you’re lost…..can we please get someone else on this site to review films or at least provide another point of view cause I for one am getting tired of captain negative

    • Rev. Slappy

      First of all, Don Winslow’s source novel is flat out brilliant. Winslow is former investigator and has written extensively (extensively!) about the war on drugs. He’s writing about the weed business from a very knowledgeable point of view.

      Also, Stone isn’t aping Tony Scott. Stone’s been using this same kind of visual motif since The Doors in 1991 and it came to its zenith with Natural Born Killers in 1994, tens years before Man on Fire. Tony Scott’s been aping Fernando Meirelles ever since City of God came out in 2002.

  • Jordan

    I agree with two main points: a) the opening narration is pretty awful and b) the ending is pretty stupid. However, I do think the rest of the movie catapults it up a bit higher than a C+ rating.

    Maybe it’s just my personal opinion, but I think the action stuff is pretty fricken good.

  • WyldeMan52

    Matt, maybe if you ever read a book you’d realize that this movie was indeed adapted from one, and your gripes about this film are all directly translated from the book, save for the ending.

    • iamtryingtobelieve

      If a problem exists in a film, even if it’s directly from the source material, it’s still a problem in the film.

  • buck

    Let me get out my Goldberg translator…..ok…..hold on….hold on….ok so this movie is good up until the ending.

  • Sugreev2001

    …and the final nail in the coffin for young Taylor Kitsch’s career.

    • Mo

      Unlikely, although it seems a lot of folks who never watched FNL want it that way.

  • Northern Star

    Oliver Stone hit his peak with the masterful ‘JFK’ in 1991, it’s all been downhill from there…

  • Leonardo

    i haven’t watch this yet but it looks like Stone old style, besides Goldberg and i have a great different opinions.

  • chuck

    Saw this last night and it is WELL worth seeing. Yes it has problems especially the ending. Stone clearly filmed two endings and used them both. Bad move and it hurts the film but most of it is captivating. Del Toro and Hayek are simply terrific and the 3 young leads are all fine. No doubt Savages will have strong cult appeal down the road. We dont get many hard R films anymore, embrace this.

  • Job

    It was not a polygamous relationship they had it was a polyamorous one. There is a difference.

  • Stacy

    I was not familiar with the book’s ending, so when I saw the first ending, I was pleasantly surprised that it was not the typical Hollywood happily ever after ending, yet in its own poetic way, it was how it should be. To me, it demonstrated the depth of their love for one another and that none of them could go on without either of the others. While tragic, it was absolutely beautiful and perfect – and exactly where the movie ended. When she said that’s how she imagined it, and the end changed, I literally, aloud in the theater, announced, “WHAT?!” She imagined the guys in the mountains getting shot too?? Then the new ending became some corny conclusion that seemed to attempt comedic closure in a movie that was not comedy. My first thought was that Stone couldn’t make up his mind. Big letdown. Then I thought, maybe Travolta needed a closing scene. If the latter were the case, however, they could have had the helicopters fly in after the shootout and had him looking over the bodies to wrap it up. I walked out of the theater still saying that was the dumbest ending in movie history. I used the analogy with my husband suggesting it was like Clue where you pick your own ending. It is still bothering me 3 days after seeing it.

    Excellent movie, storyline, and even acting that I believe will help catapult Aaron’s & Taylor’s careers, but it should have ended 5 minutes sooner. Not every movie needs Happily Ever After, although I believe, in its own way, the first ending actually was, albeit in death.

    I also wanted to add that at first, I thought the 2 sex scenes were gratuitous, but realized later into the movie their importance to understand the love story. I had a great deal of respect for them realizing it didn’t require Blake’s nudity to pull it off, and it was well done with a purpose. Some scenes later were a bit graphic, but again, seemingly necessary to the plot. I wish they would have given the ENTIRE movie that same justice.

  • Anonymous

    Was pleasantly surprised by this one and I will be buying the DVD. Loved it!

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