Adapting Don Winslow’s 2010 novel Savages was never going to be easy. The book is both revelation and revolution whose joys come from its distinctive prose as its propulsive plot. Winslow’s novel feels like the culmination of years of experimentation in previous books like The Winter of Frankie Machine, The Death and Life of Bobby Z, and The Dawn Patrol, albiet infused with the anger and politics of The Power of the Dog. It has strong sexual content and ultraviolence aplenty — plus, it’s funny and sad and beautiful and a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for Generation Y.
Now it’s a movie, directed by Oliver Stone, working from a script co-written by Shane Salerno and Winslow himself. In many ways, it’s an excellent adaptation of the book, honors the spirit of Winslow’s work with a deft, affecting touch. It has almost as many flaws, including a controversial ending that is sure to outrage fans of the novel.
The film begins in Laguna Beach, California — present day. Botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass) and ex-Special Forces soldier Chon (Taylor “Tim Riggins” Kitsch) produce some of the best marijuana in the world. Ben is the brains, Chon, the enforcer — and both of them are in love with O (Blake Lively, xoxo Gossip Girl), who’s the kind of California girl Brian Wilson writes songs about. The three of them share an unusual but comfortable relationship, until the Baja Cartel, led by Elena comes calling.
When Ben and Chon spur the advances of the cartel’s generous offer to buy their business, Elena instructs the vicious, perverse Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap O. She hopes this will send Ben and Chon into her embrace. Chon has other plans, plans best summed up by Tommy Lee Jones in Rolling Thunder:
“We’re gonna kill a whole bunch of people.”
It is safe to say that shenanigans ensue, as they did in the novel. For much of the film’s run time, Oliver Stone captures the operatic highs and lows of Winslow’s book. Dan Mindel’s cinematography paints everything in bright, bold colors, from the blue of the ocean to the hellish warehouse where O is kept. The film alternates between thrilling action and the brutal violence of the book. Kitsch and Johnson often share the frame together, and give the friendship between Ben and Chon a comfortable believability. Each get their big, dramatic moments, and almost as many quieter ones. Their work here will leave audiences wanting to see them work together a la Redford and Newman again.
Winslow’s novels are known for nuanced yet colorful supporting characters. Among these in Savages are Dennis, a corrupt DEA agent played by John Travolta, and the aforementioned Lado. Both men are not nearly as smart as they think they are, playing as many angles as they can keep track of, attempting to as outwit Elena, Ben, Chon — and each other. Both Del Toro and Travolta do some of the best work of their career here, including a stunning scene together that’s just a joy to watch. Stone, also, gets actors like Demian Bichir and Emile Hirsch to occupy small, memorable roles.
Less memorable is Blake Lively, playing O, who also narrates. Lively is not bad per se, just less engaging. She misses the spark and spunk of O in the book, landing somewhere between spoiled and whiny. Stone does right by the oft-maligned actress, giving her a few key moments to show she’s a talented actress, but the actress can’t keep up when sharing the screen with Hayek and Del Toro. One wonders what Jennifer Lawrence might have done in her place, especially given her ability to keep up with actors like Woody Harrelson and Michael Fassbender.
The decision to put much of Winslow’s prose into Lively’s SoCal removed-just-enough monotone with just enough emotion (which sounds very much like her New York monotone of the same on the hit tv series Gossip Girl) is something close to a disaster. Winslow’s prose is memorable writing, but it should have stayed on the page. Savages is often masterful at capturing the tone of Winslow’s work, better than any film before, but lines like “Chon’s a baddist” sound great when you’re reading them, but laughable when someone is saying them. It’s disappointing to think that the narration — which sounds like nothing but someone reading from the book — could be audience’s first exposure to Winslow’s prose, which is a pleasure and joy to experience.
Missing too, from Savages, is the political subtext that makes the book a touchstone for the Millennial-Generation Y-Children of Baby Boomers set. The novel is infused with a mournful sense that these kids have no future because their parents, their elders, left nothing for them, that all they have to look forward to is a lifetime of paying back the very large debt the Boomers accrued. The novel is both elegy, eulogy, and primal scream into the sunset of the American Dream. Little of that is to be found in the film adaptation of Savages, and ultimate proof that Stone was perhaps the wrong director to helm this project. It’s hard to condemn your generation, even if he’s done it many times before.
Stone’s wussing out is put on full display in the ending of Savages, which wants to deliver the shocking ending of the book and a happy ending all at once, leading to a not-nearly-as-clever-as-it-thinks-it-is dual ending. The original ending is moving and powerful as portrayed here, yet removing the aforementioned political undertones rob it of some of its power — which makes the actual ending not as terrible as expected. fans of Winslow’s work as a whole might be surprised by what they think of the actual ending. The film manages to stay true to Winslow’s work while not delivering the ending of the book. That second ending will seem familiar to fans of novels like The Winter of Frankie Machine or The Death and Life of Bobby Z, which means it’s a “Winslow ending” without being the “Winslow ending” of Savages.
Savages could have been a disaster from start to finish, as Winslow’s novels are mixture of memorable prose, wonderful characters, and plots propelled by rocket sled. Bringing that to the screen was bound to be a challenge, and it’s a small miracle that the finished film is as good as it is. Like Bobby Z or Frankie Machine or Dawn Patrol, this is a film that invites repeat, albeit casual, viewings on HBO or lazy Saturday afternoons. It’s a return to form for Stone, proof that Tim Riggins is alive and well, and that faithful adaptations of Winslow’s work are possible. Well. Mostly faithful.