Stone’s ‘Savages’ struggles with adaptation

Courtesy+NBC+Universal

Courtesy NBC Universal

by David Dixon

Courtesy NBC Universal

Fans of filmmaker Oliver Stone and crime novelist Don Winslow will likely be disappointed by “Savages.” Adapted from Winslow’s novel of the same name, the usually entertaining Stone has crafted a thriller that is only occasionally engaging.

O (Blake Lively) is a woman involved in open romantic relationships with two best friends, the sensitive Ben (Aaron Johnson) and the violent Chon (Taylor Kitsch). Her live-in lovers happen to be popular Southern California drug dealers who seem to be living the high life (insert laugh track here). The men are asked to join forces with a notorious Mexican drug cartel. Because the syndicate is a dangerous organization, Ben and Chon decline the cartel’s offer. This leads the cartel’s head Elena (Salma Hayek) to kidnap O, knowing the girl is “their weakness.” O’s lovers decide to try and save her from captivity, even if it leads to bloodshed.

This particular drama suffers from the same fate many pageto-screen movies face. It feels too much like watching a hardcover novel transferred to another medium without cutting what is necessary to make it flow visually.

Instead of moving at a brisk pace, “Savages” is at times excruciatingly slow with many scenes that add nothing to the plot. The story is too focused on the setup rather than execution or character development. While this might suffice when reading the original source material, waiting for events to build up to the climax during the movie is a chore. Another major reoccurring problem throughout “Savages” is large chunks of dialogue fall flat. When reviewing analyses of various books, plays and films, it is fun reading about supposed hidden symbolism and metaphors, which add depth and understanding. However, screenwriters

Shane Salemo, Winslow and Stone do not give the audience the opportunity to decipher any unique messages on their own. Everything is spelled out from O’s real name Ophelia, — which she says is a reference to “Hamlet” — to Elena’s proclamation that she relates more to O than her biological daughter.

There are a handful of sequences when Stone is actually able to keep situations tense.

A memorably disturbing moment occurs when Ben and Chon first see O as a prisoner on an Internet video. The payoff to this is haunting to say the least. Throughout this film’s entirety, this particular scene is about the only time the director displays what this could have been: an effective, emotionally intense experience.

Another stand-out element is the strong ensemble cast, including John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro and Emile Hirsch. All the actors, especially Johnson and Hayek, make the best of what is given to them. The performers will likely move on to better projects soon.

Speaking of talent, “Savages” should not affect the writers or the accomplished director in the long run. All are obviously very good at what they do, but their skills somehow just don’t mesh well in the final cut. Stone tries going back to his hardcore R-rated roots after an unofficial trilogy of timely PG-13 dramas (“World Trade Center,” “W.” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”), and he should continue to take risks with future pictures.

Instead of being a speedy thrill ride, “Savages” is a generally boring endeavor. Hopefully, everyone involved will put this film behind them as soon as possible.

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