Oliver Stone has had a rough decade, but "Savages" suggests that the man has come back to form - or as close as he’ll ever appear to it again. While "W." and other recent films were anchored down by attempts to ingratiate his audience with unearned sentimentality, this crime thriller will alienate all but those with the strongest stomachs. He hasn’t lost his socio-political obsessions: he’s working from a plot that allows him to equate high level drug deals with business negotiations, and FBI agents with cartel enforcers. And yet this will please many more crowds than the mechanically calculated emotional tugs of "Wall Street 2" ever did.
He sets up a number of warring agencies - Mexican drug cartels, idealistic Americans with a high-grade marijuana business, corrupt federal agents - and then makes it impossible for you to sympathize with any of them. It’s a vicious film, literally in-your-face - early on, a decapitated head is booted directly into the camera frame. This is closer to the grit and cynicism of "Salvador" than it is to the false prestige and self-importance of films like "Alexander" or "World Trade Center," and you’ll get no complaints from me on that one.
The plot of "Savages" jumps back-and-forth incredibly often, so quickly shifting style, point-of-view, color saturation, and character allegiances. Some audiences may find it hard to keep up. I think that’s the point: when hypocrisy is such that the war on drugs is fought by corrupt agents, and only ends up encouraging crime rather than crushing it, how can anyone hope to make sense of things?
Ophelia (Blake Lively) is our narrator and the character we get to know best, but she’s hardly an audience identification figure. Sleeping with two best friends (and partners in the boutique pot business), she soon finds herself a tied-up bargaining chip in a brutal exchange between her boyfriends and the leaders of a ruthless trafficking organization.
She may be the raconteur, but our focus here is the boys, the wildly divergent Ben (Aaron Johnson, playing the ’earth mother’ style hippie; he sends profits to third world countries and earns comparisons to Bono) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch, playing a former Afghanistan vet who, in O’s words, has "wargasms").
Johnson and Kitsch are self-consciously playing two sides of the same person - Johnson the warm and caring kind, Kitsch, violent and self-interested. So while the film’s flourish of having them carry on a 3-way relationship with O may seem a little convenient at first (in baiting the bloodthirsty cartels with unsubtle hints of amoral hedonism), it ends up playing far more naturally than expected in execution.
Yet it’s Benecio Del Toro, as the cartel-employed hit man/enforcer Lado, who dominates Stone’s frames. The other two are quality actors playing well-defined roles, but this is a performance. He’s an actor we’ve always loved for his inscrutable tics: the way his drawl shifted volumes in "Sin City," or the way he embodied "Che." But here there’s a decidedly evil edge: you’re not laughing when Del Toro makes a big actorly show of removing a few tomatoes from a sandwich, you’ve got to keep yourself from shivering.
He revels in decadence, finding slimy habits that will surely send the more easily offended sprinting out of the theater (one moment of unusually depicted spit-swapping serves as unmitigated proof that this man is one of our dirtiest, mangiest character actors - and that’s high praise.) No doubt many will cry about his "overacting." But they forget, behind all the political subtext, this is a bloody, twisting-and-turning crime film. And Benecio’s unmercifully loud acting has never been more at home than in an abrasive, kinetic Oliver Stone genre movie.
Stone fills every role with great actors - Salma Hayak as the cartel’s leader (in one of the films many moments of equating political diplomacy with criminal violence, someone notes that "Hilary Clinton wants to grow up and become her,") while John Travolta plays a corrupt FBI agent that Ben and Chon (and maybe others) keep on the payroll. And the film peaks when Stone locks a few of these people in a room to let loose. One sequence, with Travolta panicking as he realizes Del Toro has arrived at his home with intimations of violence, is no less than Tarantinian in its drawn-out, every-pause-matters exchange of dialogue. For once, we have a Hollywood movie where the things people say to each other actually matter, instead of dialogue being built out of catchphrases and quips.
What makes these scenes come together as such a satisfying whole is that for once, instead of preaching, Stone is content with provoking. He doesn’t want to tell you what to think of the Mexican cartel wars, the American war on drugs, or the criminal profiteering that both seem to support equally. Instead, he wants to lay all the cards on the table - from vindictive south-of-the-border decapitations to the hippie idealism that seems to drive the ambiguously legal American medicinal marijuana trade- and then force you to draw your own connections as he shuffles the deck.
He even uses an either-or double take ending (one that admittedly castrates the visual and aural strength of his "first" climax) that leaves just about everything open for interpretation. For once, Stone isn’t giving answers. He’s asking questions. And while that may lead to some questionable denouements, the fact is that all the uninhibited violence and sex fosters an "anything-goes" atmosphere that makes the audacious logic leaps of the climax work well enough, if not perfectly (I won’t spoil anything, but it’s more "True Romance" than "Natural Born Killers").
And in the summer, I’ll take all the adult-oriented entertainment I can get. "Savages" gleefully mixes political commentary and genre thrills in ways that have been extinct since the seminal B-movie wave of the 70s. It may not be perfect, but it’s the perfect anti-summer movie: it’s violent, obliquely political, aimed at adults, and it’s not about a superhero, nor does it exist as a fraction of a franchise. Sure, it has flaws. But who cares?
We’ve spent the last two months being fed fast food by the Hollywood machine. "Savages" is a bloody steak.