(On-demand Video, November 2012) Oliver Stone certainly knows how to handle criminal mayhem, and if Savages isn’t as good overall as some of its strongest individual moments may suggest, it’s a fairly strong entry in the “California noir” thriller sub-genre. Strikingly contemporary with references to legal marijuana, omnipresent technology (including criminal IT teams) and America’s latest two wars, this efficient adaptation of Don Winslow’s hard-hitting novel is a colorful blend of upstanding criminals of all stripes. Central to the tale is the happy ménage-à-trois between two dedicated drug entrepreneurs and the woman who loves them both, but Savages’ best moments come from the peripheral players: A completely corrupt DEA agent played by John Travolta, a merciless enforcer incarnated by Benicio del Toro and a powerful drug baron handled with icy grace by Salma Hayek. All of them seem to be enjoying their turn to the dark side, so much so that the nominal protagonists of the film seem to fade away. What doesn’t fade, fortunately, is Stone’s attempt to translate the energy of the novel onto film, with self-assured choices, a colorful palette and plenty of narrative forward rhythm despite Savages’ 140-minutes running time. Alas, he also chooses to end on a double-triggered ending that gives unfortunate credence to the stereotype that every ending is happier in Hollywood, ruining a perfectly adequate conclusion with one that may unsettle even happy-ending fans. (Yes, it’s sort-of-prefigured with some narrative warnings at the very beginning of the film. No, it’s still not all that effective –a more powerful film may have been produced by flipping the endings.) Also unfortunate: Blake Lively’s inert voiceovers that seem to be taken from laborious readings of trite material, and the way some subplots seem abandoned mid-way through. Still, there’s a lot to like in the way those modern criminals try to gain advantage over each other, various methods and tricks all eventually leading to a desert confrontation. It’s a bit of a treat for thriller fans looking for something a bit more ambitious than the usual straight-to-video suspense film. Stone may have trouble focusing, but despite significant missteps, Savages frequently clicks when other thrillers chug along, and that’s enough of a distinction to warrant a look.
Simon & Schuster, movie tie-in reprint edition of 2010 original, 336 pages, C$17.00 tp, ISBN 978-1-4516-6715-8
Life is filled with regrets, and as a dedicated reader, one of mine is that there’s simply not enough time in the world to read all the books I want to read. (Especially given that I intend to spend the next few years raising my infant daughter rather than reading voraciously.) I know my own corner of genre fiction pretty well, but there are so many other good books out there that I can’t possibly hope to read them all. But then again, maybe that’s a feature of the reading universe rather than a bug –it means that there are always, and forever will be, great books to read. Wonders await the constant reader.
In this case, I’m quite specifically happy to have discovered Don Winslow and Savages. It took Oliver Stone’s film adaptation to bring me to the novel, but no matter: Savages is a great contemporary crime novel, told in a vivid and efficient style that had me reading the book in the kind of happy trance that I only get from exceptional fiction.
Little of the impact of the book can be guessed from a synopsis of the plot, although much of the novel’s hip contemporary flavour certainly comes through: In early-2009 South California, two boutique drug entrepreneurs are targeted by a Mexican drug cartel: The cartels love their superior product but wish to muscle in on their profits. When the two small-time dealers try to opt out of the “deal”, things quickly escalate when the young woman who loves them equally (yes, this means exactly what you think it does) is kidnapped and held against their cooperation. Before long, our protagonists are pitting corrupt DEA agents against a crime matriarch and her brutal enforcer.
As a pathological reader with a professional sideline in film reviewing, I have learned a long time ago that it’s always best to go from film to novel, appreciating the way a novel expands upon the events of the film. Savages does something more, though: while the film adds an unnecessary meta-fictional trick at the end of the story (one that both softens and weakens the hard ending of the novel), the book will surprise movie viewers and please readers through sheer style. From the very first chapter (solely composed of a popular two-word obscenity) onward, it’s clear that Winslow’s not content with the usual objective tight-third-person hum-drum narration. Oh no: Savages roars on full-octane style. Ellipses, parentheses, in-your-face omniscient narration, interrupted sentences, impressionistic fragments, script excerpts, invented vocabulary (as in “PAQU” for Passive-Aggressive Queen of the Universe), short paragraphs, punchy sentences are all part of Winslow’s arsenal here and the result is one constantly absorbing read from beginning to end.
Despite the economy of words, Winslow also ends up a surprisingly funny writer. Never mind the implied dialogue between narrator and reader (“and no, there won’t be a quiz at the end because we’re talking about stoners here” [P.21]). Have a look at this paragraph describing the qualities of a particularly potent strain of marijuana:
This was a plant that could almost get up, walk around, find a lighter, and fire itself up. Read Wittgenstein, have deep conversations about the meaning of life with you, cocreate a television series for HBO, cause peace in the Middle East (“ The Israelis and Palestinians could coexist in two parallel universes, sharing space but not time”). It took a strong man –or a strong woman, in O’s case –to take more than one hit of the Ultra White Widow. [P.37]
Hilarious… and Savages is filled with passages such as this one. It amounts to a memorable reading experience that trades heft for speed and impact: It’s a short novel, but one that fully rewards the reader. As a look at the modern drug business, it feels credible. But it’s as a piece of storytelling that Savages shines best. I haven’t read a novel told quite like this before, and I do like the result. I may currently be in the middle of a self-imposed moratorium on buying new books, but once I get back to my addict ways, Don Winslow is on the list of authors who deserve some further attention.