Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Man on Film: Savages

I have a ton of catching up to do around here. Some of these pieces will be brief as a result.

It's been roughly two months since I saw Savages. Generally speaking, there is very little about Oliver Stone's oeuvre that I have found particularly noteworthy or compelling. In fact, there isn't a single film on his résumé that I can say I even liked. For whatever reason, I still end up seeing roughly one in three of his films, but it's rare that I ever feel anything that exceeds a neutral response.

While there are aspects of Savages that work well and/or stand out, it certainly does not set itself apart from the rest of his middling fare.

I suppose the thing that keeps me coming back to make sure that this tiger didn't change his stripes is the talent he gets in his flicks. Ultimately, that talent is what stands out. For whatever reason, he's got Oscar winners (Benicio Del Toro), Oscar nominees (Demián Bechir, John Travolta, and Salma Hayek), and up-and-coming "It" stars (Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, and even Emile Hirsch in a bit part) all lining up to be in a relatively run-of-the-mill adaptation of a Don Winslow best-seller that met its fair share of critical acclaim in 2008. Don Winslow seems very cool when interviewed, as seen here,

and I'd imagine this was a relatively hot project. It's just that there seems to be a disconnect between the totality of the talent involved and the end product, largely because of the auteur at the helm. For instance, you've got the likes of Demián Bechir, John Travolta, Emile Hirsch, and the extremely underrated Shea Whigham in very insignificant roles with very little to do. Sure, Travolta is lucky to be in any movie at this point, but still three deserving actors are taking somewhat colorful but relatively insignificant character roles in a picture by a director whose apparent cachet doesn't match his actual body of work.

At this point, I've gone on so long on a tangential rant against a director who I'm simply unimpressed with that you'd think I was reviewing a Brian De Palma flick, and yet I have spoken very little of the film. I suppose its framework is one that had potential. Savages pits a rivalry-free ménage à trois against the backdrop of the borderland drug war with the cartel trying to strong-arm the two male thirds of the house into a business partnership. As far as the trio is concerned, Aaron Johnson is serviceable as Ben, even if the ecologically-minded pacifistic drug dealer character is a little lame. Taylor Kitsch is cast in precisely the role he should be cast in at this point: the damaged, brooding bad boy Chon who cares ferociously for those close to him. I like Taylor Kitsch. I liked John Carter. I even didn't mind Battleship. And I fucking love Friday Night Lights. Apparently, he's my new cause. My new Ben Affleck. And just like Affleck, some day Hollywood will figure out what to do with him, but the kernels are fucking there, man. As for the final third of the troika, Blake Lively's character O is the narrator. Despite the fact that the tale is being told through her voice, the character is not particularly interesting or rich with layers and texture. She's in love with two men who love her right back, and theirs is a blissful polyamorous union. It's just not a particularly interesting one. I suppose in a sense the three of them  represent a third of the human psyche and combine to form one complete person with Chon representing the id, Ben being the superego, and O being the ego, but that still doesn't make the three interesting as their story (at least on screen) just isn't quite compelling enough.

What is extremely compelling is the performance of Benicio Del Toro as Lado, the enforcer for Elena (Hayek) and the Baja Cartel. Every second he is on screen, he is captivating. Del Toro hasn't chewed scenery like this in ages. He eats up his role, and the camera loves him the entire time. There are very few movies where a performance completely stands out head and shoulders above what the rest of the film is, but Del Toro in Savages is fucking brilliant and inspired.

Now there is an element of the story that, for the sake of avoiding spoilage, I shall refrain from delving too much into, but holy shit is it infuriating. In fact, I was sort of enjoying the movie up until the point I'm vaguely referencing, but this turned me the other way and took one out of the win column for Stone and put it back into neutral ground, at best.

I've already written far more than I'd ever anticipated about this movie that is barely still out in the theaters. I'd wrap this up more elegantly, but I don't know that Stone deserves that.

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