Oliver Stone has long been considered one of the most controversial filmmakers of his generation. Whether he’s annoying history teachers with the slick, but factually suspect “JFK,” or horrifying the rest of us with the slick, yet utterly reprehensible “Natural Born Killers,” Stone never fails to cause a stir.
That is until recent years, when the famously irascible director appears to have mellowed. His latest have either been light-hearted and surprisingly gentle, like his George Bush biopic, “W,” or simply confused and ill-advised like the “Wallstreet” sequel, “Money Never Sleeps.” Stone’s later films show all his technical skill, but without much spark. The speculation as to his filmic demise can be put to rest, however, with this week’s return to the gritty, hyper-kinetic cinema that we’ve come to expect.
Oliver Stone’s “Savages” certainly lives up to its name, but more than that, it’s undeniably alive.
Ostensibly the story of two affable, best buddy pot dealers who attract the attention of a vicious Mexican cartel, “Savages” is really the tale of O, the narrator and shared love of said pot dealers, Ben and Chon. Our two protagonists have developed a strain of cannabis that is extremely potent, and extremely popular, giving Ben and Chon the kind of success that naturally attracts attention. When the Baja cartel moves in and attempts to absorb our heroes, it sets up a conflict that ends with the kidnapping of O. Now it’s up to Ben and Chon to find a way to get her back, whatever it takes.
O sets us up early in her voice-over by assuring us that, just because she’s speaking to us, doesn’t mean we can assume she’s going to survive the events to come. That, and the revelation that “O” is short for Ophelia, the doomed love of Hamlet, suggests that maybe there is a dangerous fragility in our storyteller, a delicate nature played very well by Blake Lively. Of her two loves, Ben is the brains, a pacifist greenie do-gooder who uses the profits of his dope sales to help poor people in Africa and Malaysia. Compare the gentle compassion in Ben’s eyes when he hears about the good his product is doing for cancer patients to the horrifying violence perpetrated by the drug-smuggling cartel, under the watchful eye of a beautifully chilling, perfectly cast Salma Hayek, and there’s no question as to where Oliver Stone comes down on the legalization of marijuana. It’s almost enough to make you stand up and cheer. Not that I agree with his assessment, but just because it’s nice to see Oliver Stone getting back to the in-your-face political statements he’s known for.
Stone may be arguing for legal pot, but while that would eliminate the power of the cartels, it would also eliminate the need for the character of Chon, a character Stone obviously loves. He’s the enforcer, the muscle. Where Ben is all peace and light, Chon is damaged goods, a rough and tumble ex-soldier who is determined to protect his family, Ben and O, at any cost. Of all the protagonists, Chon is the most prepared for the storm that’s coming, having learned about savagery in Afghanistan. In fact, as things escalate, Chon seems more and more at home.
I can’t say enough about the incredible ensemble cast that came together to create this film. Brit Aaron Johnson disappears into Ben, but his performance is more than just about creating a convincing California accent. Ben is forced to change more than anyone, to confront the savagery hiding within when his family is threatened. As Chon, Taylor Kitsch finally hits a home run after the disappointing one-two punch of “John Carter” and “Battleship.” Chon never really left the war, and Kitsch embodies that pent-up aspect of the character perfectly. Also very good are John Travolta as a corrupt DEA agent, and Benecio Del Toro, who is absolutely harrowing as a completely amoral enforcer for the cartel. Add to that the previously mentioned performances by Hayek and Lively, and you have a brilliantly acted film.
The writing is also very good, though the story structure and the necessity for a gotcha kind of ending do act as a kind of speed-bump to a pretty thrilling ride. I appreciated that the screenwriters wanted to make this film about more than just the drug trade, a fact that elevates it beyond a simple shoot-em-up. “Savages” muses on the nature of family and on the value you place on your parents once you grow old enough to see their flaws. It muses on the conflicted nature of parenthood, the balance you set between wanting to shield your kids and smack them. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is one where Hayek’s character Elena, having kidnapped O, sits her down for a motherly chat over dinner. “There’s something wrong with your love story, baby,” she tells our young heroine, disapproving of O’s open affair with Ben and Chon. This maternal concern is all the more poignant considering Elena’s own daughter, almost of an age with O, won’t give her the time of day. But mostly “Savages” muses on the nature of savagery. Is it cruelty? Is it a primitive nature, or is it a primeval innocence. Considering the brutal violence in the film, it seems clear at first to what the title is referring, but it’s not the last word on the subject, a fact that makes this film not just bearable, but actually enlightening.
Make no mistake, “Savages” is difficult to watch at times. There are several scenes that get pretty disturbing, but Stone succeeds in making that violence part of the journey, not the destination. I was very impressed with this film and, despite one or two narrative missteps, see it as an elevation of a somewhat limited genre. Action/Crime films are often entertaining, but rarely do they reach such intellectual and emotional heights.
“Savages” soars. Grade: A-
“Savages” is rated R for nudity, sexual content, language, and graphic violence.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.