Page to Screen: Savages
SPOILER ALERT: Stop here if you don’t want to read plot details from the book and the movie!
Savages, which opened in theaters last week, is director Oliver Stone’s first stab at the action genre since the last millenium. While many hail this adaptation of Don Winslow’s eponymous book as a return to form, does it really hold up? Further, does Stone stay true to author Don Winslow’s acerbic wit and hard hitting story?
Two successful pot dealers, Ben and Chon live the good life in Laguna Beach with their shared girlfriend, Ophelia (O for short). Millions of dollars in sales, the best weed, and a beach house to make Barbie jealous may make for a perfect life, but trouble soon sprouts in paradise. The pair are faced with a hostile takeover from the Baja Cartel.
Led by Elena La Reina (yes, Elena The Queen), the Baja Cartel is known far and wide for its ruthlessness. So when Ben and Chon refuse two intermediaries’ offer to work for the cartel, they kidnap O. El Lado, Elena’s California killer for hire, is not a nice fellow, and threatens to behead O unless the pair starts supplying the cartel immediately. Further, Elena decides not to let O go as long as they are working for her. Soon though, she negotiates O’s ransom down to the reasonable price of twenty million dollars.
Both Ben and Chon resist and decide to go to war with the cartel. Chon served in Afghanistan, or as he calls it, “The Stan,” and uses the same guerrilla tactics he learned over there to take their money to pay O’s ransom. Ben, the product of two hippie therapists and Berkeley, has problems with the violence that comes from robbing a cartel. The story’s climax comes as Ben must decide between his moral nature and his loyalty to O.
Director Oliver Stone stays pretty faithful to the story. After all, author Don Winslow is credited as one of the screenwriters. Ophelia’s mom P.A.Q.U. (short for “Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe”) does not make an appearance in the film. Conversely, Dennis (John Travolta), the DEA turncoat working for Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), is given a far larger role in the film. John Travolta being John Travolta, he kind of steals the show.
Thankfully, Stone cuts much of the pre-kidnapping first half of the novel. There is only so much loafing one can take. And instead of depicting Ben and Chon’s several strikes against the cartel, Stone winnows it to one big hit. The ending is also a one-eighty turn from the book, and while less tragic is far more sardonic. Without spoiling anything, Stone does not have the highest opinion of the War on Drugs.
Does It Work?
Don Winslow is a great wit and a careful observer of California life. While the book may be far more tragic than the movie, it is also funnier and far more insightful. For example, Winslow even goes so far to name his favorite taco place in Laguna, not because it is important to the story, but just because he wants you to know.
In the novel, the characters come across as real people struggling to make sense of the LA borderlands and its netherworld of drugs and violence. In the film, they are either portrayed as good: Ben, Ophelia, and Chon, or bad: the Mexicans. You could call this film xenophobic, but that would be an understatement.
The real victim of the script–and the film’s downfall–is Ben. While in the book, he must wrestle with his choice to turn violent, in the film, he is just a wimp. There is no angst, no mental back-and-forth, and ultimately no character arc.
Ben is just one of the many missed opportunities Stone and company kept in the script. In the book, Chon is a victim of PTSD struggling to fit into American society; in the film, he is just a badass killer with a cool car.
Savages is a story that lends itself to film, but not the vapid one that Stone made. There’s action and sex galore, but emotion? Not so much. Honestly, this film does not cover much more than exteriors. The costumes, California coastal sets, even the actors are all beautiful, but in the absence of any human drama, who cares?