Monday, July 9, 2012

Savages



Hey guys…

I know I know, here I am sneaking in at 3:00 AM with lipstick on my collar and whiskey on my breath. But it’s not what it looks like baby I can explain…

OK I can’t explain. It’s just what it looks like.

In hindsight I really should have called an official hiatus. In my defense, I didn’t plan to go so long without writing. Honestly I didn’t. Certainly there were films I wanted to write about, both big like John Carter (underrated) Prometheus (WTF) and The Avengers (Wheeeeeee!) and small like Resurrect Dead and The Red Riding Trilogy.

But I was also in the middle of writing one manuscript and editing another and every time I scraped out a couple hours to write, the sad fact is that something else took priority.

But a funny thing happened during the time I spent away. I began to miss it. For the last couple of months Things That Don’t Suck had turned into something I had to do instead of something I wanted to do. And that, as Nixon assured us “Would be wrong.”

Well I want to do it again. I miss writing about film on a constant basis, I miss having a voice in the conversation no matter how small it is. And I miss you guys reading your responses, hearing your insights. Dodging your bricks.

Alright group hug over, let’s try this again.



Don Winslow’s Savages is a piece of pulp poetry. A maniacal ultra violent near farce one moment, a melancholy requiem the next. It’s cynical to the point of being borderline nihilistic, angry, viciously satirical, laugh out loud funny, occasionally beautiful and above all it’s fucking lean and relentless. You can read it in one sitting. A novel made out of gristle.

Saying that Oliver Stone’s film is in comparison a little chunky is like saying that Orson Welles circa Touch Of Evil had a few extra pounds on him. As Stone’s bloated spectacle flopped before me the strongest emotion I felt wasn’t anger, or even disappointment, but a bone deep bafflement. Just what the fuck was this? Don Winslow’s name is on the script, what was he thinking when Stone started adding subplots and politicking turning his sleek cruise missile of a story into this ungainly ornamented thing. I have not seen an adaptation miss the point of its own source material so aggressively since Less Than Zero. I am confused by literally every creative decision made in Savages.

This is the sort of film where I don’t even know where to begin with what’s wrong with it. Sure there’s the aforementioned extraneous subplots and characters which add nothing but baggage to the story (and give Stone a place to shoe horn in his requisite Indian Fetish I guess). But there’s also the voice over by Blake Lively (not since The Spirit has wall to wall narration been this unwelcome), which sound like Stone was actually angry at his hypothetical audience when he recorded it. We could talk about the fact that Stone’s still using canted angles and lens filters like it’s the mid nineties and someone gives a fuck. There’s also the cop out ending. The way the film ignores most of the books biting black humor, contains none of its irony and sentimentalizes its deeply unsentimental tone. That would leave out the fact that the film’s gender politics are truly odious, adding in a rape scene not featured in the book that is so completely gratuitous that it is down right bizarre. With absolutely zero narrative or thematic payoff. I guess you can’t have a powerful woman character in a story without debasing a double XX Chromosone somewhere.  

The real bitch of it is I can’t deny that the movie has its moments. There’s a heist scene here that is as tight and intense as anything that Stone has ever directed. There are isolated shots and scenes that are excellent. Some of the most striking images of Stone’s career are in this movie. As for the actors Selma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta all give excellent performances, with Del Toro in particular relishing the chance to be one dimensional, going so far as to literally twirl his mustache at one point in the film.

As for the younger trio that the film centers around it’s a wash. None of them are really bad, even Lively if one overlooks her voice over is only kind of bland. But they don’t have any of the richness that they did on the page. Like the film they inhabit they’ve been white washed, turned from Winslow’s venal, sociopathic and deeply haunted (respectively) creations to just some guys.

Savages is by any judgment a complete failure. As an adaptation it’s a willful misinterpretation at best. On it’s own merits it’s a piece of self parody that buries its few thrilling moments underneath bloat, vanity and some severely fucked up subtext.

To quote the book’s opening line,

“Fuck You.”

13 comments:

Caleb Wimble said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Caleb Wimble said...

"Unbearable, isn't it? The suffering of strangers, the agony of friends. There is a secret song at the center of the world, and its sound is like razors through flesh."

Having marathoned Hellraiser recently that's about the only quote that comes to mind when I attempt to analyze any of Oliver Stone's recent repertoire.

Regardless, welcome back!

Adam Zanzie said...

Bryce, I read the book, too, but my response to the film was the complete opposite of yours. I agree, Winslow's book is a fantastic page-turner, but I didn't find anything about Stone's adaptation to be baffling. The book reads like a Cormac McCarthy episode of Breaking Bad. But knowing what Stone did with Natural Born Killers and U Turn, I had a feeling going into this that he'd make a very different kind of movie, and while it's not *quite* on the level of the book, I still think this is the best movie Stone has given us since the early 90's.

You say Stone adds unnecessary subplots, a criticism I don't really understand... wouldn't it be more accurate to say Stone took out most of the book's subplots? For example, in the book, Ben and Chon launch not just one heist against the cartel, but several of them. Stone limits it to only one heist, however, because the idea of the cartel disbelieving that the masked thieves could possibly by Ben and Chon would not be as convincing to a movie audience as it would be to readers of the book. And Stone cuts out other subplots, too: the Mexican kids who find the cartel's money; the guy who sells Chon the high-powered gun; O.'s mother/daughter relationship with Paqu (who was played by Uma Thurman in scenes that Stone elected to cut out). Stone's rationality is that these subplots have nothing to do with the main storyline. So, understandably, for a 2-hour movie, he sticks only to the important details.

The scene where Lado shows O. a video of herself being raped by him, although it wasn't in the book, is there because Lado is attempting to break O.'s ease at the thought of being rescued by her boyfriends. You complain that Stone couldn't make a kidnapping movie without including a rape scene, but, well, the fact is that this is what usually happens down there. After all, the cartel isn't opposed to beheadings and torturings, either.

On that note, I have to say that the torture sequence in this film is almost unbearable to watch, and when it was over I was nearly on the verge of tears; it's even more painful than it was in the book. Stone is reminding us just how awful this system of justice can be, more than any other modern filmmaker I can think of at the moment.

I also think that the film's "sentimental" ending is not so sentimental at all. Sure, the book's ending [spoiler warning] was poetic and sad, but that's why Stone decides to give us two endings: a) the tragic Shakespearean ending, in which things are wrapped up so that everybody dies and consequences are avoided, and b) the harsher, more realistic ending in which the bad guys are rewarded and the good guys are disgraced. The most sympathetic of the film's villains, Elena, goes to jail, and the two most despicable villains -- Lado and Dennis -- get their big-time promotions. Sure, O., Ben and Chon all survive, but they've still been ostracized from their own society and forced to disppear into the underground, and this is something which they never, ever wanted.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Caleb: Thanks man.

@ Adam: The thing with the subplots, is a matter of weight, sure the robberies are cut out but in the book they're what a page each. The cutting out of the Mexican kids getting murdered by the cartels was a major weaking of the text because like most of the other choices that Stone made it took away an action by Ben and Chon that hurt outsiders if not innocents (see also the description of their war against the bikers and the hit that Chon carries out for the cartel all of which made Ben and Chon weaker characters and toned down the moral greys of Winslow's novel). On the other hand, Dennis and Lado's Mechinations take up what fifteen minutes of screentime? Twenty? What about all the added stuff with Hirsch's character, and Chon's Ex Seal Buddies?

As for the rape it's not that Stone included it but the way it was handled and more importantly the fact that there's absolutely no weight given to it. Lado comes out, says "Oh BT Dubs I raped you, here have a look." and it never affects the plot, the character or is brought up thematically after that scene.

The torture scene similarly rang hollow for me, because it made Ben and Chon much more passive than they were in the book. They still set Alex up yes, but it's treated as a "They pushed us too far moment" that rang completely false. By that point in the book they've killed people and indirectly caused the deaths of others several times in order to defeat the cartel. It's just another thing.

As for the sentimentalizing, I wasn't so much referring to the ending (though Jesus that mythical beach in Indonesia, I didn't have a problem with the ending of The Town and that made me snort. And no showing both endings doesn't solve anything: see having your cake and eating it too). But in the way it handles the core characters. Take the line about "Chon trying to fuck the war out of him." In the book it's a throwaway, a punchline, at the end of a monolouge explaining Chon's post traumatic lack of stress. Here it's delivered with po faced seriousness turning Chon into the standard Nobel Damaged Vet. O' is a selfish hedonist, not a poor little rich girl, and for all of Ben's good work's his is an empire founded on Blood (except in the movie it isn't because consequences are a bringdown).

And that's the main problem with Savages, it's a film without consequence. In every sense of the word.

Adam Zanzie said...

The cutting out of the Mexican kids getting murdered by the cartels was a major weaking of the text because like most of the other choices that Stone made it took away an action by Ben and Chon that hurt outsiders if not innocents (see also the description of their war against the bikers and the hit that Chon carries out for the cartel all of which made Ben and Chon weaker characters and toned down the moral greys of Winslow's novel. On the other hand, Dennis and Lado's Mechinations take up what fifteen minutes of screentime? Twenty?

True, the book went into a lot of detail over the innocents that got harmed as a result of the whole thing. If I had to guess why Stone avoids this subplot, though, it's because he wants the audience to focus more on the people within the cartel who are threatened by Ben and Chon's actions. People like Alex and Esteban. Stone's asking us, "Yes, these people are evil, but do they still deserved to be punished in these ways?" I won't argue that the book is deeper -- because it is -- I'm just saying it's pretty ballsy for Stone to get us feeling sorry for some pretty bad dudes/dudettes. The more innocent casualties from the book are ignored because Stone's not interested in them, but in the people within the system whose lives are crippled by the drug wars. The ones the media never talks about.

I, too, longed for the scene where Chon swims out to sea and executes the cartel target. That would have undoubtedly been a nice, suspenseful sequence. But I'm willing to forgive it not being included because it has nothing to do with the main story.

The Lado/Dennis subplot is merely glossed over in the book. Stone gives it more screentime in order to lay the groundwork for the second ending, because in reality, there's no way in hell Dennis is going to let Lado die in the firefight. Otherwise he wouldn't be getting his big promotion.

As for the rape it's not that Stone included it but the way it was handled and more importantly the fact that there's absolutely no weight given to it. Lado comes out, says "Oh BT Dubs I raped you, here have a look." and it never affects the plot, the character or is brought up thematically after that scene.

It affects it if we take into consideration that not only is Lado a mass murderer, but also a rapist who still gets off scot-free while enjoying a Little League game sitting next to his wife on the bleachers. Which makes the movie even more pessimistic than the book, in which Lado's wife knows about all his wrongdoings. Here, she apparently knows nothing about it. Lado can blend into his society and appear to be just like every other family man.

(continued...)

Adam Zanzie said...

The torture scene similarly rang hollow for me, because it made Ben and Chon much more passive than they were in the book. They still set Alex up yes, but it's treated as a "They pushed us too far moment" that rang completely false.

Chon is passive. Ben is not. Ben voices his digust that they would put Alex in a position like that, and Chon reasons that Alex dug his own grave -- which, from what I recall, is true to how they reason it out in the book. If Ben isn't as horrified by Alex's death as he might be, it's because he's already had that hysterical crying fit over the Mexican they killed during the heist. By this point, Ben has realized that if they're going to save O., then he and Chon can't afford to mourn casualties anymore (even sympathetic ones like Alex). There's just no time for it.

Take the line about "Chon trying to fuck the war out of him." In the book it's a throwaway, a punchline, at the end of a monolouge explaining Chon's post traumatic lack of stress. Here it's delivered with po faced seriousness turning Chon into the standard Nobel Damaged Vet. O' is a selfish hedonist, not a poor little rich girl, and for all of Ben's good work's his is an empire founded on Blood (except in the movie it isn't because consequences are a bringdown).

O. is already a hedonist in the book. Winslow emphasizes this constantly, right up until the moment when she's in captivity and reasons that it's time to do something with her life. Chon does display post-traumatic lack of stress in the movie -- it's evidenced by the fact that he still hangs out with military buddies, handles the brutal side of the dope business with ease, and only lets his guard down once -- while hiding under the table at the restaurant.

I do agree about Ben, though. I wish they could have shown more of the trauma he faced in Indonesia when he started coming to Chon's conclusions about how humanity is basically shit. That might've enhanced the movie more.

And that's the main problem with Savages, it's a film without consequence. In every sense of the word.

Elena going to prison and not seeing her daughter for another 30 years? Dennis and Lado turning into untouchable kingpins? Aren't those pretty significant consequences? O., Ben and Chon having to disppear into anonymity? I'd argue that this is a mighty big sacrifice for all three of them to make, especially since they used to be among California's wealthy elite.

Rob said...

Yeah, but was Prometheus a good WTF or a bad WTF for you? I seem to be in the minority but I really freakin' enjoyed every minute of it (BOTH times!)
Sounds like you've been busy so it was a nice surprise to see a new review, glad you're doing good!

Bryce Wilson said...

"It affects it if we take into consideration that not only is Lado a mass murderer, but also a rapist who still gets off scot-free while enjoying a Little League game sitting next to his wife on the bleachers. Which makes the movie even more pessimistic than the book, in which Lado's wife knows about all his wrongdoings. Here, she apparently knows nothing about it. Lado can blend into his society and appear to be just like every other family man."

But these aspects have already been well emphasized, hell the man engaged in literal mustache twirling. The fact that he was evil did not need to be underlined.

"O. is already a hedonist in the book. Winslow emphasizes this constantly, right up until the moment when she's in captivity and reasons that it's time to do something with her life. Chon does display post-traumatic lack of stress in the movie -- it's evidenced by the fact that he still hangs out with military buddies, handles the brutal side of the dope business with ease, and only lets his guard down once -- while hiding under the table at the restaurant."

That's exactly my point they've all been turned into much more conventionally sympathetic protagonists.

"Elena going to prison and not seeing her daughter for another 30 years? Dennis and Lado turning into untouchable kingpins? Aren't those pretty significant consequences? O., Ben and Chon having to disppear into anonymity?"

Once again every single one of the things you mention is NOT a result of Ben and Chon's actions. It's all Dennis and Lado. The film transforms them into passive blameless characters. Which is a terrible interpretation of the text.

@Rob: Good to see you buddy. I actually enjoyed Prometheus quite a bit. But they way I put it is, I've never seen a movie get so many big things right and so many little things wrong. All the core stuff was great, but all the supporting characters and subplots was kind of lazily written and it did eventually detract from the film as a whole.

le0pard13 said...

Great to see you back, Bryce. I probably liked the film a little more than you, but I completely understand your sentiment. Especially given the material Don Winslow delivered with SAVAGES. What I found more than a little interesting was the one chapter early in the book that played almost as an addendum to DW's magnum opus of the drug trade, THE POWER OF THE DOG. It successfully brought the reader up to speed to the cartel situation just south of the border from the period that ended TPofD to 2010 (the time of SAVAGES release). Since Winslow had involvement in the screenplay, I thought it was probably his doing to incorporate Mexico's recent election and the return of the PRI into this adaptation.

Of course, including the novel's ending (without the beauty of the pulp poetry Winslow infused into it) and the Hollywood version was pretty damn sacrilege. Wonderful written, as always, my friend.

p.s., since a good many fans and authors bet on Oliver Stone filming the notorious DP scene from the book, I'm sure they're a number now awaiting the film's BD/DVD release to see if it they can renege on paying by stating, "Well, it's a the Deleted Scene extra." ;-)

Bryce Wilson said...

@Le0: Thanks man, I don't know does implied DP count?

The deep philosphical questions we get into here...

Neil Fulwood said...

Hella good to see TTDS back on the block.

Haven't read the book, but I'm already recoiling from the prospect of this movie for no other reason that it features top-heavy gouts of voiceover delivered by Blake freakin' Lively.

Bryce Wilson said...

God I cannot accurately describe the pain that thing inflicts.

David Robson, Proprietor, House of Sparrows said...

Kinda don't wanna see this movie.

But I'm delighted to see you back, Cap'n.