Director : Oliver Stone
Screenplay : Shane Salerno & Don Winslow & Oliver Stone (based on the novel by Don Winslow)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Taylor Kitsch (Chon), Blake Lively (O), Aaron Johnson (Ben), John Travolta (Dennis), Benicio Del Toro (Lado), Salma Hayek (Elena), Demián Bichir (Alex), Sandra Echeverría (Magda), Emile Hirsch (Spin), Shea Whigham (Chad), Joaquín Cosio (El Azul)
Savages, a lurid thriller about the cross-border drug trade, is Oliver Stone’s latest entry in his “Current Events” phase, following his ode to 9/11 heroism World Trade Center (2006), his Dubya-years semi-satire W. (2008), and his corporate-shark sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010). Having set aside the historical film after the catastrophe that was Alexander (2004), Stone has spent the past decade working entirely on films of the here and now, and if Savages is the best of them so far, it is largely because it feels so fully focused and all of a piece; it’s aesthetically flashy without being overbearing and politically sensitive without being pushy. It’s not a great film, but it has chunks of a great film in it fused together with enough torrid sensationalism to give it a sense of vivid, pulpy grandeur without quite sacrificing the sense of genuine sociopolitical unease rolling just beneath the surface.
Based on the 2010 novel by Don Winslow (who contributed to the script along with Shane Salerno and Stone), the story follows the exploits of a surface-beautiful threesome: best friends Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who have built a successful Southern California-based drug business by developing and growing the best weed on the planet, and O (Blake Lively), the carefree rich girl they share. Ben is the brains of the operation; having double-majored in botany and business, he knows how to grow and sell, and the money he earns allows him to indulge his idealistic desire to change the world by supplying Third World countries with computers and clean water. Chon, an emotionally battered veteran of military campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq, is the muscle of the operation, although he is rarely needed in that capacity because Ben has nearly perfected a violence-free operation. O, which is short for Ophelia, shares them both with neither seeming to mind, thus creating a fantasy-world ménage-a-trois of sexual, material, and emotional gratification that never hits so much as a minor snag of jealousy or competition.
Their blissful, sun-drenched, drug-fueled existence is shattered with the arrival of a Mexican drug cartel led by the beautiful and ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek) and enforced by the sadistic Lado (Benicio Del Toro). Elena’s wants to partner with Ben and Chon, and she makes them one of those offers that they can’t (or shouldn’t) refuse via her respectable-looking lawyer (Demián Bichir), which, of course, they do. To convince them otherwise, Elena orders her henchmen to kidnap O and threaten to kill her in ways both slow and painful unless Ben and Chon accept her terms. The brutality of Elena’s cartel is well established, as the film’s opening images consist of shaky video of Lado dispensing punishment via a chainsaw to a group of uncooperative men, and we later see him kill a slick American lawyer (Shea Whigham) who didn’t produce the proper verdict for one of their associates. Elena, a mother whose older daughter Magda (Sandra Echeverría) resents her violent trade while hypocritically enjoying the privileged American life it buys, recognizes immediately that O is Ben and Chon’s weakness, but she underestimates their willingness to fight back rather than simply fold once the love of their life is threatened.
In one sense, Savages is a good ol’ fashioned revenge tale, with Ben and Chon playing the victims-turned-aggressors who flip the tables on the drug cartel by proving that they can be just as ruthless and cruel, at one point using Elena’s own methods against her. This level of the film appeals to our base instincts, as we are primed to identify with Ben and Chon and therefore accept their adoption of the cartel’s ultra-violent methods as both justified and cathartically rewarding (even though Hayek infuses some recognizable humanity into Elena’s bitch-cruelty, Del Toro’s Lado is little more than a bully-sadist with a resume), and it works because Stone draws good performances from his actors: Taylor Kitsch, in his third major film following the blockbuster duds John Carter and Battleship, is effectively hard and haunted, while Aaron Johnson, best remembered as the teenage geek-hero in Kick-Ass (2008), provides the film’s slippery moral center (although Stone short-sells the ramifications of his descent into bloodshed). Blake Lively (The Hills), on the other hand, is a bit of a blank despite providing the story’s voice-over narration, but then again, so is her character.
At the same time, though, Stone constantly pushes us to question the divide between the two sides, as the film seems to be suggesting that the drug trade is inherently violent and that Ben and Chon’s idealized attempt to create a feel-good dope empire was doomed to bloodshed (it requires, after all, manipulating the system at every angle, including the use of a corrupt DEA official played by John Travolta). He generally steers clear of any overt political grandstanding or judgment regarding marijuana; instead, he slips back into the observational mode that fueled the drug-trade sagas he wrote, but didn’t direct, in the 1980s, including Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983) and Hal Ashby’s 8 Millions Ways to Die (1986), and it works in a gritty, nuts-and-bolts kind of way. He teases out the various implications of the film’s seemingly blunt title, as characters on both sides of the story’s divide use it pejoratively against the others: Ben and Chon see Lado and his thugs as brutal “savages” for their use of violence and cruelty to established power, while Lado sees Ben and Chon as “savages” for their carefree, unmoored lifestyle that maintains no vestiges of traditional family. Thus, on some level, Savages is about more than just the modern drug wars, but also about what we see (and summarily dismiss) when we look across our borders and what we fail to see in ourselves.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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