2:03 pm Jul. 3, 2012
Based on a novel by Don Winslow, Savages is Oliver Stone's most refreshing film in a while. As usual, Stone holds his viewers' hands too much in his mad need to not be misunderstood, and there's a lot of ripe dialogue and over-acting in the service of ideologically provocative themes. But it is uninhibited, and fun.
The philosophical foundation of the story in Savages is the notion that base, animal instincts unite everyone, from clean-cut, small-time white drug dealers to the ruthless leaders of a Mexican drug cartel.
The hedonistic impulse that unites everyone is most immediately foregrounded in the film's central three-way romance between three white dealers. O (Blake Lively), nee Ophelia, is in love with both Chon and Ben (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson), pot-growing entrepreneurs who in turn have a strong, almost homoerotic bond with each other.
Bon and Chen's relationship with O gets them into trouble almost immediately after they get into a dispute with a Baja-based drug cartel, led by the mysterious Elena (Salma Hayak). Elena wants a cut of the boys' profits and uses her vicious enforcer Lado (an over-the-top Benicio del Toro) to get her way.
Lado kidnaps O at his boss's request and impatiently waits for Elena's plan, which relies on the assumption that O, as the embodiment of the tenuous high-minded values that unite Ben and Chon, is the key to controlling them. In Savages' pulpy, blood-soaked narrative, romance and the impulse to love are noble while the urge to destroy and murder is, well, savage. This is neatly illustrated by the way Chon, a Gulf War veteran, wants to punch things while Ben, the more hippy-dippy of the two boys, wants to save the world by founding charities and searching for alternative energy sources.
But when Elena kidnaps O, that line between Chon's savagery and Ben's nobility breaks down. As they attempt to rescue O, Ben takes the lead, and he and Chon demonstrate that they can be just a brutal and amoral as Lado and Elena.
The premise is high-minded and trashy in equal parts, and Stone barely holds it together.
For example, it's hard to believe Ben's decent into Lado-like viciousness, even though that's clearly what the movie means to portray. Stone goes to pains to show Ben at one point using an Improvised Explosive Device, just like the kind used by the Taliban. But even that is more an ostentatious sign of Stone's focus on "savagery" than a believable character-driven action.
Still, those are minor details. As several characters stress through expository dialogue, the film's protagonists are not the masters of their own fates. Things just happen, and they don't always make sense.
Stone essentially powers through the plot holes, forcing his film to work whenever it logically shouldn't. His lesson, that having kids and having sex are both signs of humanity's nobility makes sense here because, well, he's calling the shots.
In one scene, Lado shakes down Dennis (John Travolta), a corrupt cop who aids and abets Ben and Chon.
From the outset, it seems clear what Lado wants: to pump Dennis for information and then kill him. But as the scene progresses, the viewer starts to feel confused and even cheated, as their conversation steers them away from a seemingly inevitable fight. Instead, they talk about growing old and about how they can help each other out.
It's an unexpected turn in a film that's full of them.
Savages is Oliver Stone flying by the seat of his pants, and taking us along for the ride.