Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Wild - and Exuberating - Ride from Oliver Stone

Savages is the movie that Oliver Stone has been trying to make for many years. Never afraid of controversy, Stone has tackled a variety of contentious subjects in his films ranging from political deception (JFK, Nixon) to combat (Platoon, Born of the Fourth of July) to mass murder (Natural Born Killers) to financial greed (Wall Street, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). He's always attracted attention but his results have been mixed; I loved Nixon and JFK, liked Wall Street very much, but hated Natural Born Killers. But with Savages, the director has given us a film that is textbook Stone in its grab-you-by-the-throat style of filmmaking that works brilliantly. This is unquestionably one of his finest efforts.

Based on the 2010 Don Winslow novel of the same name (Winslow co-wrote the screenplay with Shane Salerno and Stone), Savages is a disturbing, thrilling tale, a look at the workings of the drug cultures in both California and Mexico. Illegal activities on both sides ensure that the characters - even the ones that appear normal - are savages to some degree, more or less. At various times in the film, a character representing a particular group in the story calls one or more of the opposition a savage (or savages). This common thread unites all of the major players in this grim, violent tale and leaves us with a world that is sordid and filled with many unanswered questions. Given the issues raised in this film, this is how it should be.

On one side, we have three characters who represent the freedom and bliss (if you can call it that) of the drug world of California. Here, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is the brains behind the outfit, the man who has developed some of the world's finest cannabis. Yes, he makes money off this stuff - tens of millions of dollars - but he puts much of that into helping underdeveloped nations with educational aides. His activity may be illegal, but he has our sympathies and we root for him.

His friend Ben (Aaron Johnson) is the brawn of the outfit, a former combat soldier who uses whatever force he needs to collect debts from drug dealers. His easy good looks notwithstanding, he is a wild tiger ready to pounce on his unsuspecting subjects.

Both Chon and Ben are in love with the same woman, O (short for Ophelia) portrayed by Blake Lively, who feeds off the dual energy of these two. O narrates the story and in one brilliant line, tells us the difference in the approach of the two. "Chon gives me orgasms. Ben give me wargasms." Clearly, O, who loves strolling on the beach and heading to the mall for the latest fashions, craves the yin and yang of this relationship that is the most meaningful thing in her life.

Representing the opposing side in this story are the members of a Mexican drug cartel, the two most powerful being Lado (Benicio del Toro) and his boss, Elena (Selma Hayek), who directs her minions from a distance, watching her players acting out her commands as she gets her thrills watching on a live stream on her computer or closed circuit television. Her love of expensive things (furnishings, horses, jewelry) stands as an ironic contrast to the unspeakable horrors that seem to satisfy her. Her character is the most complex in the film and Hayek's portrayals is among the very best in a collection of fine performances.

Rather than go into all the twists and turns in this story (especially during the last fifteen minutes), I'd rather deal with the look and feel of this film. The cinematography by Daniel Mindel is mainly high key and quite bright, representing the beauty and "good life" of California, all the while making an ironic statement on the glamor of the Southern California seaside where the film originates. Stone's direction is well, frantic to some degree, but it is a controlled madness, as combines his use of different visual looks with imaginative cross cutting (one of the editors is Joe Hutshing, who has performed these chores for Stone on six of the director's previous films, having won two Oscars in the process) to ratchet up the nervous energy of this film. The story is constantly transferring back and forth between countries and characters and Stone displays the same energy here as he did back in 1991 for JFK. As I wrote in the title for this post, it's a wild ride and it's a highly watchable, entertaining film. Stone has been quoted as saying this film is a little bit like a Western and he's right - we root for the bad guys and root against the bad guys.

Except that if this a morality play, the morals here are pretty loose. Are Ben and Chon really good guys? Ben's violent nature moves him to shockingly injure Dennis (John Travolta in a wonderfully disarming performance), the DEA agent who is seemingly their only hope to rescuing O, who has been kidnapped by the drug cartel. Even Chon, who is the peaceful half of the duo, will perform an act during the film that links him to murder.

As for Lado, the evil soul that directly oversees the killings that are routine for his fellow businessmen, while he has no problem shooting someone, he takes time to pause and wonder what he has to do to please Elena, as he confesses in a scene with Dennis. This scene, more than halfway into the film, is a key moment, as we learn that Dennis is not exactly playing it straight. Early on, it is revealed that he is turning his eye away from Chon and Ben's illegal activities, so we know that his actions are tainted, but when he encounters Lado, we understand that Dennis is not acting as a professional, but simply as an individual who knows what side (or sides) of his toast to butter.

Even Elena has a few moments in which to enrouse our sympathies, particularly when she talks with O at a dinner at her hidden retreat in California (she has ceded to O's wishes for some normal food during her time as a captive). This encounter, however, is more than a nice gesture on Elena's part; it is a need for her to talk to another woman, as she deals almost exclusively with testosterone-fueled madmen (this an interesting comparison with O, who has sex with two young, libido-driven men).

Elena confesses her love for her two remaining children, a son and daughter, as her other children were violently murdered, no doubt due to her vicious business practices. She communicates several times during the film with her early 20s daughter Magda (Sandra Echeverria), who wants no part of her mother's life. As she tells O of her loneliness, we sense at least some sense of decency on her part, but we are then shocked as in closeup, she tells O, "Let me remind you that if I had to, I wouldn't have a problem cutting both their throats." Stone immediately cuts to a long shot of Elena and O at this glamorous dinner under the stars as Elena asks the servant to serve the pastry course. It's a chilling moment and this scene is one of the best written, photographed, edited and directed in the film.

"It's been a great ride, " Ben tells Chon late in the film, as they head toward a final encounter with the cartel. "I enjoyed it." That pretty much sums up my thoughts watching this film, one of Oliver Stone's most entertaining to date. It is a film that dares us to watch some horrible and immoral actions by numerous characters and leaves us wondering who among us is not a savage, as least to some degree?


  1. I wish I could agree with you on SAVAGES, my friend. But I found it was a little too blunt and on-the-nose to succeed. It is infinitely better than NATURAL BORN KILLERS, I'll grant you. But the performances of SAVAGES' three protagonists lack the charisma of the veterans on the antagonists' end. It leaves the film a bit out of balance.

    I see what Stone was going for, but he accomplished it much better in the sublime U-TURN where the entire cast was more evenly matched.

    Not completely bad, SAVAGES is still worth a look. But I also would have liked it better with three other young leads and without that ending that tries to cut it both ways.

  2. Tony:

    Thanks for your comment. I respect your opinion greatly.

    Too blunt, as in lacking subtlety? I guess to a certain degree, but I found the violence and message appropriate.

    I would agree that the antagonists are better portrayed than the so-called good guys. However, I did think that Aaron Johnson as Ben was very good in his role.

    Funny, but I've now read both positive and negative reviews of "U Turn." Somehow I've missed that film. I'll have to watch it.