Coming as it did after a string of slightly tonier projects—the series of 'State of the Union" pictures that began with World Trade Center (2006), continued through W. (2008), and ended, two years later, with that ill-advised Wall Street sequel—Savages promised (or threatened, perhaps) a return to another, more disreputable Oliver Stone: the sleazoid pulp merchant who gave us U Turn and, above all, Natural Born Killers.
Early stills were promising, all super-saturated colours and cropped, shallow-focus compositions. The leads were young and attractive. And in Don Winslow’s well-regarded crime novel, about a drug-dealing threesome who run afoul of a Mexican cartel, the director would seem to have found the ideal match to his own High Philistine style; his history pictures seem stifled and bloodless by comparison.
But something happened on the journey between page and screen. Winslow’s novel functions equally well as a crime thriller, and as a satire of privileged SoCal life: a trio of handsome, moneyed young people—'dreamers of the golden dream," to use Joan Didion’s phrase—find themselves badly out of their depth, amid kidnappings and beheadings and other techniques employed south of the border. But despite Winslow’s presence as one of the scriptwriters (alongside producer Shane Salerno, and Stone himself), this adaptation jettisons most of the book’s irony, and invites us to take these dumb, sweet kids as seriously as they take themselves.
Admittedly, the casting does not help. The errant trio are played by Taylor Kitsch, British import Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Blake Lively—and three less charismatic leads it is hard to imagine. Their shared passion is unconvincing; their sex scenes, ludicrously tame (one bathtub encounter veers uncomfortably close to Red Shoe Diaries-style softcore), lack any spark or sizzle. You never believe that these three share any history, or that they mean anything to each other.
Kitsch, more muscular than the Brit, plays his ex-Navy SEAL as a one-note bad-ass, joyless and impulsive—yet his performance lacks any hint of menace; he seems, instead, merely petulant and dim. Taylor-Johnson is a hippie so sweetly naïve that his chosen vocation makes no sense. (Did no one ever tell him that the Cali drug trade harbours some ruthless types?) And Lively, saddled with an airily banal voiceover—which she delivers in a dead-eyed monotone—simply looks stranded.
With so little to upstage, it’s hardly surprising that the veterans in the cast carry the day. John Travolta’s portly, corrupt Fed is a delight, his avarice as pronounced as his receding hairline. As an enforcer for los carteles, Benicio del Toro is all untidy eyebrows and wolfish grin, a sweating, shifty-eyed lunatic. And Selma Hayek vamps it up as the cartel’s widowed boss, too distracted by her teenage daughter’s defiance to keep the necessary eye on business.
Every time one or more of these actors is onscreen, the movie seems to flicker briefly to life; the moment they leave the young’uns to their tribulations, it slumps back once again into abjection and irrelevance. A gleefully vulgar filmmaker, equal parts Stanley Kramer (in his hectoring politics) and Samuel Fuller (in his horror of boredom), Stone does his best with the material—aided by no less than three credited editors—but can’t compensate for the void at the film’s centre. An absence less of morality, than of simple chemistry.
With so little to upstage, it’s hardly surprising that the veterans in the cast carry the day.