Movie Review: SAVAGES Is Oliver Stone's Best Movie in Years Until Its Ghastly Ending
It’s impossible to talk about Savages without first talking about its ending.
Its horrible, unseemly ending.
I don’t know what Oliver Stone was thinking.Â Fans of the Don Winslow novel from which Savages takes inspiration know how his story ends, and it’s a real gut-punch; in its last few pages, Winslow turns a snappy caper into something horrific and oddly lovely.Â His ending gives his three leads â€“ twenty-something Laguna Beach marijuana kingpins Chon and Ben (played in the film by Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson, respectively) and their spacey-beautiful shared girlfriend O (short for Ophelia, and played by The Town‘s Blake Lively) whose cartel-motivated kidnapping kicks off the main action â€“ the poetic grandeur their three-way relationship deserves without absolving them of their transgressions, and it elevates Savages from pulp fiction into high art.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if the movie version had just changed the ending.Â Disappointed, sure, but not surprised â€“ no major Hollywood studio would allow a big-budget genre project like Savages to rock as ballsy a conclusion as the book’s.
What Stone â€“ working with Winslow and screenwriter Shane Salerno â€“ actually does is inexcusable.Â He gives us Winslow’s ending, almost to the letter, and then, just as the finale’s tragic ramifications are taking hold, he has a character say (and I’m paraphrasing here), â€œWhoops!Â That didn’t happen.Â That’s just what I imagined might happen,â€ before literally rewinding the plot so he can drop the real ending, which delivers a cop-out punch.
Do you remember the movie Clue?Â When it premiered theatrically, Clue had three different endings, and you would view a different one depending on when and where you saw the movie, but when it hit VHS and DVD, all three endings got played simultaneously; you’d watch one, and then a title card would come up noting, â€œThat’s how the movie could have ended.Â Here’s another possibility.â€Â Believe it or not, this played better than it sounds because it honored the spirit of the game.Â Each game could have a different outcome, so why couldn’t the movie?
Savages, however, isn’t a fâ€”king board game, and Stone tossing in both wrap-ups looks like he couldn’t make up his mind.
Here’s the thing: as director, you have to make up your mind about sâ€”t like this.Â Picking the sad ending: that’s a choice.Â Picking the unrealistically happy ending: that’s a choice, too.Â Giving us both isn’t â€“ it’s a trip to the editing room â€“ and it means that Savages isn’t 100% satisfying.Â We never get the story resolution that we need because we doubt the film’s commitment to its own wrap-up; even the cop-out ending on its own would provide more fulfilling closure than the current goat-fâ€”k of a conclusion.
And what really hurts â€“ the reason that this non-decision decision kills me â€“ is the end torpedoes Stone’s best, most enjoyable picture since 1999’s Any Given Sunday.Â This is Stone’s True Romance, for better or worse; adapting Winslow has reawakened something long dormant in the gonzo filmmaker.Â His last three films â€“ World Trade Center, W., and Wall Street 2 â€“ took controversial material (global terrorism, the Bush presidency, the financial meltdown) and made itâ€¦safe.Â Palatable.Â The kind of polemics you can take your grandma to.Â I mean, Wall Street 2 hinges more on an estranged father and daughter overcoming their issues with one another than it does on the most devastating U.S. financial catastrophe since the Great Depression.
Savages, on the other hand, takes disreputable content and works overtime to make it even seedier.Â The movie opens as Benicio Del Toro’s fearsome cartel assassin is about to decapitate â€“ with a chainsaw â€“ some rival drug producers, and the camera cuts away only just before flesh starts to fly.
That’s the extent of Savages‘ restraint.
The rest unfolds in graphic detail, from explosive headshots to sudden knife wounds to (in a queasy beat that makes the chainsaw evisceration in Scarface look tame) an eyeball forced out of its socket by repeated horsewhippings.Â Cinematographer Dan Mindel further complicates matters, shooting this mayhem with lurid, candy-colored fluidity; it makes horrifying moments like these (and the film’s action highlight, an improvised takedown of a cartel convoy) look as slick and attractive as the improbable Jules et Jim physical-emotional coupling between Kitsch, Johnson, and Lively’s characters.Â But that’s the game Stone is playing.Â He wants us not to recoil in horror but to lean forward and soak up the madness.
Somehow, this doesn’t scan less as an exercise in empty nihilism (the biggest failing of Stone previous pure genre â€œentertainment,â€ the 1997 neo-noir U-Turn) because Stone has a potent political diatribe guiding his work.Â On one side of the equation: marijuana, which Stone depicts as an absolute good; we see it improve sex, heighten concentration (!), and lessen the pain of the sick and dying.Â On the other side of the equation: a global drug war that makes Southern California look like Fallujah, that turns sweet kids into hardened killers.Â Savages‘ cheerfully corrupt DEA agent (John Travolta, giving the film’s funniest and most affecting performance) exclaims early on, â€œThis sâ€”t will be legal in three years,â€ and thus end most of the drug war’s violence, making the bloodshed on display feel like a colossal waste.
Somewhat uncharacteristically for Stone, this message doesn’t have the same sledgehammer-force obviousness as, say, the â€œour media culture is so diseased it makes serial killers look less reprehensibleâ€ takeaway from Natural Born Killers; the pop undertones of the Winslow novel force Stone to keep Savages buoyant.Â While the subtext rages, we’re enjoying the sights, the plot twists, and the wonderful supporting cast as they devour the scenery. Kitsch, Johnson, and Lively are good (Kitsch, in particular, is terrific, and the intensity he brings to dead-eyed Iraqi-war vet Chon more than atones for his lackluster Battleship and John Carter performances), but they’re bound somewhat by the confines of the narrative â€“ they have to keep the plot going.
The rest of the cast has no such responsibilities, which means you get a fat and twitchy Travolta hamming it up with Del Toro’s Speedy Gonzales-meets-Anton Chigurh psychopath or with Salma Hayek’s disciplined cartel leader-with-crazed-Mommy-issues (bonus points: the great Shea Whigham as a beyond-sleazy lawyer who crosses Del Toro in the worst way).Â Their willingness to camp it up (I’m talking Rocky Horror Picture Show levels of camp) gives Savages its absurd edge and helps blunt some of the gore’s impact.
But all their labors â€“ and Stone’s, too â€“ crumble beneath the misconceived ending; it just stops Savages dead.Â Ollie, a word of advance: on the Blu-ray edition?Â Pick an ending and stick with it, and I promise my appreciation for your movie skyrockets.