'Savages' combines violent insanity with novelistic feel

July 16, 2012 

Savages really didn't want me to see it.

First off, it came out the same weekend as The Amazing Spider-Man, which I thought had the potential to be worthier of the title The Amazingly Dumb Idea to Reboot a Franchise a Decade After It Began, and thus had to go see.

-- Local show times, theaters, trailer.

Then, fortune smiled in Savages' favor: the week after that, all the other movies were too cowardly to come out just one week before The Dark Knight Rises picks America up by the ankles and shakes our collective change directly into its pockets. As a result, the only new release this weekend was the latest Ice Age.

So obviously I went to Savages instead. And then, just as the previews ended, the projector froze up. Repeatedly. It was like the Middle Ages in there! Yes, exactly like the Middle Ages. In moments, people were boiling turnip stew and beheading each other. I narrowly escaped with a free pass and my life. A normal man may have admitted defeat at that point. Concluded that Savages was just not meant to be seen. But I'm no normal man. You know what I did instead? I returned for the next showing. And once again, my heroism paid off in spades.

Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch grow some of the best weed in the world. Their business has made them millionaires. But with Johnson on the verge of leaving the business, a Mexican cartel headed by Salma Hayek offers them a partnership.

Johnson and Kitsch turn her down. But Hayek's deal wasn't an offer -- it was a demand. After she sends brutal enforcer Benicio Del Toro to kidnap Blake Lively, Johnson and Kitsch's shared girlfriend, the pair may have no choice but to do whatever Hayek demands.

After all that running around, I'm not sure what I expected out of Savages. Spears, I guess? Thatched huts? Lots and lots of woad. I knew it was an Oliver Stone movie, so I expected a certain level of crazy and a goodly amount of violence. And it had both those things! Pretty insightful, right? I'm like a Nostradamus of movies. Either that or I saw Natural Born Killers 12 years ago. This is what professional expertise looks like.

While Savages does have moments of violent insanity, it mostly has a novelistic feel to it. Probably because it is adapted from a novel. Again, professional expertise here. By "novelistic," I mean it has themes (involving savages!) and fancy literary tricks like narration. More importantly, it has strong, human characters and a somewhat offbeat plot. Given the setup -- violent druglord kidnaps the girlfriend of two independent dealers -- you would expect those dealers to extract so much revenge that there is no revenge left, leaving Mel Gibson unable to make his next movie for years.

These are nice qualities, but what I appreciated most about Savages was its atmosphere. Atmosphere is a good thing for a movie to have. You don't want your actors suffocating to death. Unless one of them is Mel Gibson. More specifically, Stone gives Savages a dreamlike feel that's a fun contrast to the ultra-violence Del Toro dishes out at regular intervals.

By the way, Del Toro is terrifying as the cartel strongman. Between his utter disregard for human life and an even stronger disdain for proper haircuts, it's tempting to compare him to Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, but Bardem was a space alien, and Del Toro is recognizably human. A very frightening human, the kind who would stab you for coughing behind him in line, but still a person who could conceivably exist.

I didn't find Lively half as interesting, but it's hard to compete with a dude who conceals his murders by posing as a Mexican landscaping crew. There are a couple iffy bits about the ending, too. Also, I suppose that, at the end of the day, Savages is just another crime movie.

But it's a pretty good one. Stylishly shot, with strong performances and all kinds of tension, I'm pretty glad the universe's best efforts didn't stop me from seeing it.

Grade: B+

* Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson@gmail.com. His fiction is available on Kindle, Nook, and through Smashwords.

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