I am struggling to think of anything I liked about this film, but out of the chaotic morass of ill-conceived storylines and characters, I’m going to pick on the voice-over. The opening lines aren’t quite as destructive as those of Oblivion, but they create a terrible first impression:
O: [voice-over] Just because I’m telling you this story doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it. This could all be pre-recorded and I could be talking to you from the bottom of the ocean. Yeah, it’s that kind of a story. Because things just got so out of control.
That voice-over is trying to create an impression of dense, edgy complexity, and specifically conjures up Sunset Boulevard. It case it’s not clear as a general principle: unless you’re sure your film is an epic work of genius, you’re probably better off not invoking giants. This voice-over is writing a cheque that the film has got to cash, and it can’t help but fail because of the very structure of the story.
The voice-over places O as the central storyteller, but it becomes apparent very quickly that the film isn’t about her. To an extent, that means the voice-over is setting up an emotional expectation that the rest of the film is incapable of fulfilling. The voice-over implies that her life or death should be a central concern of ours, the viewer. When we learn that she exists more-or-less just so the baddies can apply pressure to the actual main characters, we lose investment in the very first emotional proposition that the film makes. O could live, and things still end badly for the people the story positions as centrally important, and vice versa. The structure of the film isn’t built around her life or death but about the struggle of which her endangerment is merely one facet. By the mid point of the film, her life is just about the least important in the structure of the narrative.
It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the film-maker is trying to tell you how edgy, dark and unpredictable their film is, rather than make an edgy, dark and unpredictable film. The film does have some of all of those components, but the generic structure it uses is actually more-or-less standard for the action genre. The premise is that someone threatens the love of a bad-ass, who through a mix of Achillean toughness and Odyssean guile, exacts revenge. If you want to think about this film in that genre context, it doesn’t even have the conviction to kill the woman as motivation for the revenge quest. And that means it’s not only boring, it’s insipid. Appended to this lacadaiscally constructed structure are some more interesting scenes, but without being integral to the structure of the film as a whole, they feel incongruous and lack impact. [See how restrained I was, not letting myself get side-tracked with a rant about how lazy yet ideologically troubling that basic story idea was?]
The problems with the voice-over don’t end there, because the voice-overing doesn’t end there. In another handful of scenes the voice-over returns to explain some potentially tricky aspect of the plot. The drug-dealers meet with their DEA snitch and the voice over is there to warn you that the scene isn’t playing out like the protagonists think it is. It felt condescending, almost patronising. For a film with such a completely straightforward plot and simple characters, there is absolutely no excuse: there is nothing that happens that could remotely require explaining.
Nor does the voice-over provide any new insight into the narrator. The voice never has any emotion, and never reveals anything about the narrator, O. Given her disempowerment, given the apparent desire for her life to the the central emotional pivot for the audience, this missed an opportunity. If you’re going to have an expository voice over, you might as well double-down on that, and unpack the emotional life in a way that elevates the importance of the narrator to the audience in a way your structure doesn’t.
Finally, the voice over is used to re-write the ending. The climactic Mexican Stand-off plays out just as it always does, until the camera fades to black, when the voice-over returns to say “well, it might have ended like that.” It then goes on to deliver instead the ultimate fantasy of a happy ending that is not only completely implausible, but completely betrays the emotional tone conveyed by the opening. They say that a writer should kill their darlings, and Oliver Stone decided that was bad advice.
All in all, there were no redeeming features to this film – it was a total waste of my time, and not only did it fail to entertain me, it actively seemed to want to insult my intelligence.
The question I asked myself afterwards was whether I could recall a film that relied on a voice-over in any substantial way that was helped rather than hindered by it. The only example I could think of where I felt like a voice-over made the film brilliant, and couldn’t be happily disposed of, was The Usual Suspects; though I’d be a little reluctant to cut the voice-overs from Fight Club and American Psycho, because while they’re probably structurally disposable, they do contribute to the emotional depth of the film.
The list of completely egregious voice-overs is much longer, especially when acting as introductions to the film and thereafter being dropped. Oblivion, Underworld and Dark City are all massively improved films if you cut the intro monologue. Of all the examples I considered, I think I’d only keep the one from Casablanca, though even there I’m dubious of its value.
So, Savages is a one-star film, and I’ve now got the pretty firmly established notion that having a voice-over probably carries a one-star penalty.