Savages: Why Ignoring The Basics Of Film Storytelling Is Bad
Oliver Stone, who used to be one of the most exciting and fascinating filmmakers around, has now delivered his second consecutive astonishingly boring film. Savages, his newest failure, is only interesting if you watch from a perspective of how many things have gone wrong on a basic cinematic storytelling level. There are four tenets of cinematic storytelling, to be discussed after the jump, that 99% of good films ever made adhere to… that Oliver Stone knowingly dismisses in the construction of this film. Why? Is this Stone’s way of attempting to still be a maverick and consequently relevant filmmaker, by intentionally making a movie that never really had a chance at working? It just baffles me that a man who once had such a sure hand, who made films that were unique and different, is now making work that is long-winded, stale, and even cliched. Savages is a title that implies primal vicious excitement. The only thing savage I encountered during its runtime was my absolute primal desire to take a nap. (Note: spoilers after the jump, especially in paragraphs three and four.)
1. Show us the story, don’t tell us the story. The film begins with Blake Lively’s character O (short for Ophelia, and Stone wants the Hamlet allusion clear– he even puts John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia on the wall of a Mexican cartel’s safe house) telling us she might be dead at the end of the story. She then proceeds to tell us who all of these characters are, where they come from, what they’re doing, and even spells out what all of the twists and turns of the plot are as they happen during the course of the film. Savages is based on Don Winslow’s book of the same name– I wouldn’t bother reading it, as I’m fairly confident Lively reads the entire novel aloud in voiceover. I can think of two films in which voiceover works: Goodfellas, the rarest of exceptions, and Adaptation, which is satirizing the use of voiceover in film by using it. This movie has easily as much voiceover as those two, and nothing remotely as interesting to say. Early on, she says that Taylor Kitsch’s war veteran character has sex with her to forget about war. “I have orgasms… he has war-gasms,” she utters in an earnest tone of voice that shockingly infers that this isn’t a joke.
2. Action is better than characters sitting around talking about action. There is a sequence in Savages that works: Kitsch and Aaron Johnson’s drug dealer characters need money, so they decide to rob a money drop from Salma Hayek’s drug lord. “Like f***ing Robin Hood,” Kitsch says, and what follows is a sequence with some wit and excitement. We witness these characters taking action, actions with serious consequences. Unfortunately, so much of the action in this film is… inaction. They sit around. They talk about business. They talk about working together. Johnson talks about not liking violence. Kitsch talks about Iraq. Benicio Del Toro talks about liking to hurt people. So rarely do these characters actually *do* anything. When they do, it’s often boring or predictable. Del Toro? We know he’s going to kill people– an early scene carries little suspense because we are just waiting for him to kill the person he’s interrogating. In one sequence, Hayek commands the boys to take 300 pounds of weed to a drop point in five hours. They get the weed, no problem. A cop pulls past them, does nothing. They drop the weed, no problem. We don’t feel the danger. Ever. At any point. That’s because…
3. Stories detail characters who undergo change. And these characters, with one exception, don’t really change. Kitsch is a haunted violent vet at the beginning, he’s exactly the same at the end. Lively is a ditzy spoiled hippie chick at the beginning, she’s exactly the same at the end. Del Toro? Scumbag who loves raping and killing. Demian Bichir? Scumbag who loves business. John Travolta? Shifty DEA agent. The one character who undergoes some change is Aaron Johnson’s. The script tells us in roughly ten scenes, all exactly the same, that Johnson abhors violence and Kitsch accepts it. They do this by having the boys debate the validity of violence ad nauseum. At one point, Johnson is forced to kill someone in a horrific manner. We see him approach, make the choice to kill, and have to live with it. Johnson, one of the better actors this age, has a good scene or two in which we witness this transformation. However, at the end, he’s the exact same peace-loving hippie he was at the beginning. He’s not changed forever that we can tell– it seems like he was able to live pretty easily with the choices he made and live happily afterward. If characters don’t change, why do we give a damn what’s happening? Nearly every movie ever is about changes. Even the dumbest and most plotless comedies (think Will Ferrell films) are about characters that change. Somehow, Oliver Stone thought it’d be okay to make a film about a huge collective of characters that may have quirks and the occasional juicy profane one-liner, but none of them really change, least of all our protagonists. That’s, needless to say, a gigantic problem.
4. Don’t get overly cute trying to fake out the audience. Usually a film can get away with, say, something horrible happening and then cutting to someone sitting up in bed gasping. However, dream sequences are pretty much as far as you can go when it comes to faking us out. Any farther, we feel like we’re being laughed at, conned, the victim of a practical storytelling joke. Savages looked on course for a pretty bad ending, in which everyone dies. There’s a big ten-minute shootout (maybe more, since time seemed interminable during this film’s duration) to close the film– enormously unoriginal, but the characters learned something through death, I suppose. Unsatisfying, but whatever. Oops! Wait a minute! Blake Lively explains (in voiceover, natch) that that’s how she pictured the ending happening, but what really happened was “more messy.” Travolta sweeps in, arrests Salma Hayek, and the three main characters go live in a tropical island paradise for the rest of their lives. You may be saying, “But Russell, that’s not more messy. In fact, that sounds like the worst possible ending for a film like this!” You’d *almost* be right… but it’s worse, because it followed the other bad ending which turned out to be a fake-out. It felt like Oliver Stone admitting that the film was boring and needed some semblance of action to engage a crowd losing interest, even if it’s fake patronizing violence.
Outside of a few isolated engaging scenes and spirited performances from Johnson, Del Toro, and Travolta– who normally I don’t care for but he could find a nice niche as bald supporting man in the future– there is really little redeeming about the film. Savage implies this film will be full of sex, violence, and action. There’s one scene of rough violence, the rest isn’t very violent at all. The sex consists of Lively fully clothed (she’s a hippie… constantly fully clothed!). The action is rare, and the talking is interminable. Except for a few references to Iraq, laws, and politicians, it really doesn’t feel like the Oliver Stone from the 80s and early 90s that I loved at all. Unlike Wall Street 2, which also had interminable dialogue but at least characters changed albeit in a completely unconvincing manner, this story… just doesn’t have a story. If it did at one point, it’s all on the cutting room floor. No change, no action, no point. To paraphrase Lively’s narration, just because Oliver Stone is telling this story doesn’t mean you’ll be awake at the end of it.