Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: Lawless vs. Savages, two gangster films dealing with the complications that accompany the trafficking of illicit substances.
PremiseLawless, based on the true story of the Bondurant brothers, tracks the path of three brothers attempting to cash in on the American Dream during Prohibition-era Virginia. Rife with the era’s symbols of gangsterdom—machine guns, discreetly transported Mason jars of corn-based whiskey, and plenty of visceral tune-ups by no-name thugs, Lawless draws one into the bonds of brotherhood, both criminal and familial.
Savages takes us to present-day Laguna Beach, where Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are peaceful, successful marijuana farmers, producing some of the highest-quality pot on the market. When the Baja California cartel, led by the sadistic Elena (Salma Hayek) is denied a cut of the product by the pair, they hold Ben and Chon’s shared girlfriend, Ophelia (Blake Lively) as ransom, igniting a series of brutal mental and physical trials between the two drug factions. Both films explore the seamy underworld of their respective vice of choice, but the narrative structure of Savages (as least evidenced by the trailer) leaves ample room for ambiguity, something that might make this gangster tale even more thrilling to watch.Advantage: Savages
EnsembleBoth of these trailers attempt to answer the question, “How many respected actors and lauded up-and-comers can I fit into one movie?” A lot, we learn. On the Lawless side, Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, and Gary Oldman all make appearances as seemingly major characters—proving that, yes, British actors are the best choice for a drama set in Prohibition-era Virginia, and that anything with Gary Oldman as a cigar-smoking villain is, by default, incredibly compelling. Savages is a bona fide bonanza of star power, with Uma Thurman, John Travolta, Salma Hayek, and Benicio Del Toro representing the old guard, and Taylor Kitsch (disregarding that whole John Carter thing), Aaron Johnson, and Emile Hirsch rounding out the new. This befits an Oliver Stone vehicle, and it’s nice to see Thurman and Travolta paired up again post-Pulp Fiction.Advantage: Savages
Supporting LadiesThe Savages trailer begins with narration from Ophelia (Blake Lively) about the precarious position of her life in the hands of the Baja cartel, establishing her character as the underpinning and motivation of Savages‘ plot. Lively’s last foray into gangster-land as a drugged-up Dorchester broad in The Town (2010) seemed to prove that Lively can distance herself from her CW pedigree, but we’ll just have to see if she can truly pull this one off. With the sublime Mia Wasikowska as Bertha, Shia LaBeouf’s love interest, and Jessica Chastain as the flame-haired brains-behind-the-brawn, the ladies in Lawless are both dynamite talents coming into their own, and they’ll surely be a pleasure to watch. Advantage: Lawless
Gangster StyleSavages is really all about the flash. Elena (Hayek) shrewdly establishes herself as the glamorous, yet ruthless head of the Baja cartel, scheming, plotting, and employing Lado (Benicio Del Toro) as her menacing muscle and enforcer. The cinematography is slick, glossy, and the violence stylized. Lawless, on the other hand, mostly because of its period and setting, is pure grit. We’re brought into the underground world of bootlegging politics with the Bondurant brothers’ ham-fisted approach to cutting deals and settling debts. Gary Oldman’s kingpin, the rakish Floyd Banner, is the slickest one involved, and with all those pinstriped suits and firearms, looks like trouble. Our interest is certainly piqued.Advantage: Lawless
DirectorThough Lawless‘ John Hillcoat has a slew of music videos, documentaries, and 2009’s post-apocalyptic Viggo Mortensen vehicle The Road under his belt, it’s pretty hard to compete with the sheer cinematic output of Oliver Stone, who has been bringing the provocative and the controversial to celluloid for decades. We’re going to have to give this one to Stone, based on past behavior.Advantage: Savages
VerdictWhile Lawless certainly asserts itself as a brilliantly staged period crime thriller, Savages might just be the gangster film of the modern era. Fast paced, brutal, and topped with a glossy sheen of greed, this latest bit of work from Oliver Stone is certain to be a force. Winner: Savages
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