dir: Oliver Stone
Savages is a quiet, restrained film about two estranged siblings played by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman coming to terms with the impending death of their abusive deadbeat father. Arguments are had, feelings are expressed, Broadway plays are written, everyone except the father is happy in the end. The End.
No, wait, that was The Savages, whereas this flick is just Savages, and it’s a completely different kettle of decapitated heads. First of all, it’s directed by an Oliver Stone we haven’t seen for a very long time, since U-Turn, I think. It’s the Oliver Stone who channels Brian De Palma, and who revels in lurid, trashy, violent excess rather than conspiracy theories and political bloviating.
And no-one wants any more of that shit, not even Oliver Stone. This flick is based on a genre novel by Don Winslow of the same name, which covers the adventures in the sun of three people in love: Chon (Taylor Kitsch), Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and O (Blake Lively). Two of these people are dope growers. One of them is the person the other two have sex with. The three of them apparently love each other equally. Puts a bit of a different spin on the love triangle trope, don’t you think?
The two guys are close, but completely (the flick alleges) different men. It’s the classical dramaturgical dyad, I mean, the mismatched buddy picture dynamic. They’re Narziss and Goldmund, Arthur and Lancelot, Abbot and Costello. Chon is an ex-military, steely-eyed killer with enough affection for O and Ben, but nothing left over for the rest of the world. Ben is a gentle, Buddhist soul who’s a genius at the horticultural aspect of their business, but holds out hope that they can run their business without too much of the nasty stuff intruding.
The marijuana business has made them rich and comfortable, living a recession-proof lifestyle in Laguna Beach, California, but it’s also brought them to the attention of the Mexican cartels, who aren’t that interested in the Buddhist aspects of the business. What they’re interested in is the high THC content of the smoke Ben produces, which is in the mid 30s, something virtually unheard of in the real world outside of movies. Something that powerful would either blow the back of your head out or incur the envy of the Mexican drug lords for real, I guess.
And they are not gentle folk, these Mexican drug lords. The stories in the media of the regular beheadings of their victims lend the real-world currency that this flick trades on, because who’s going to have a hard time believing the lengths that the evil South of the Border types would go in order to control the drug trade?
Ben and Chon don’t want to have anything to do with them, ultimately, with Ben’s reluctance arising out of his desire to get out of the ‘life’ and leave peacefully, working on alternative energy development for mud villages in the less fortunate parts of the world. Is Ben a bit simplistically drawn, as some kind of bleeding heart do-gooder with good intentions but no grasp of the true horror of the real world? Perhaps, but he’s not depicted as a naïve chap, just as someone who wishes there was a genuine alternative to the obvious one their world is about to go down.
Chon, on the other hand, doesn’t want to bend over for the Mexican cartels because – fuck them – he and Ben built this business with their own hands, and he has no fear in the face of the brutality the cartels can mete out, because he saw worse and did worse in Afghanistan over multiple tours.
How do we know all this? Well, in an interesting bit of storytelling, which is quite appalling in its own way, O is the one who tells us in voiceover, and through her sex scenes. She explains, and we see Chon on top of her furiously grinding away like she’s covered in coffee beans and he really quickly needs to make an espresso. She explains that whilst she has orgasms, emotionally deadened Chon has wargasms, as he tries to fuck her the way he fought on the battlefield. It’s a line of narration so ripe and painful that I almost thought I could walk out on the film without losing out on any of the range of human experiences.
A bit later on she explains, as we watch her having sex with Ben, who’s somewhat more restrained but no less energetic, that he provides the gentleness in her life (and vagina, presumably) sorely lacking from Chon, and Chon provides the… the… fury that everyone needs in their lives to stay motivated. I dunno, the dichotomy didn’t really make a lot of sense, but we do get the clear sense that these three people love each other, and, at least in one instance, they do love each other all at the same time, which is sweet. O, which is short for Ophelia, presumably has the best of all possible worlds, what with the wealth, no need to work, and two guys whose pluses and minuses equal an ideal partner.
Bully for her. The problem is, the two of them together need to work their synergistic magic in order to get her back from the horrifically ruthless cartel, because when the American chaps seem reluctant to enter into a partnership with them, the cartel’s ruthless boss (Salma Hayek) decides they need to be extra motivated.
Once she sends her chief and most repugnant of enforcers Lado (Benicio del Toro) to kidnap O, Ben and Chon have to reach a different level in their relationship. They’re both utterly determined to get O back, but only one of them is a complete amoral killer at this stage. Ben still has some remnants of humanity left not worn away by dope or the world, too many of them to be comfortable about killing people.
I mean, no-one surely should be comfortable with killing, but Chon is beyond comfort, it’s more like joy that he has in his heart. He has to phrase this seduction to the dark side in ways Ben will find persuasive, like quoting the Dalai Lama or sharing his street / battlefield knowledge. In the end we know Ben and Chon will do anything and everything to get O back, because they say so, and every line they cross, no matter how amoral or cruel is justifiable, because hey, they’re in love.
I can tell you that I enjoyed this fairly trashy, fairly lurid story, and the interactions between Ben and Chon, the difference in their world views, the little difference it makes in the end, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to convey whether the film works or not. The three ‘romantic’ leads are fairly strong and I bought their unusual relationship. The villains are utterly despicable, Salma Hayek is pretty good for once as a crime lord, though all she seems to do is use Skype all day long, and Del Toro especially is so loathsome that I started feeling sick to my stomach every time I saw him on screen.
I really liked the character of Ben as well, perhaps in the relatable stakes, in that he’s not as much of a blank canvas as O, or as far gone as Chon. I thought all three of the main actors did okay, though Blake Lively basically plays the little rich girl lost persona she always plays in everything she ever does. The world they live in seems a bit implausible, but frankly I wasn’t looking for an ‘accurate’ documentary depiction of the drug trade because I’ve already seen thousands of those already and doubtless will see thousands more before I die. And frankly, they bore me.
The implausabilities mount up when you consider the powers at the disposal of our main guys, who seemingly have the FBI, DEA, super hackers and NAVY Seals on tap whenever the story needs them, which transcends even what the word “implausible” generally covers, but we’re not given that much time to care because the film is pretty propulsive, fairly compelling, and moves at a fair clip. It’s also shot in a way that never lets us get too comfortable, which maintains the tension at a decent level.
Stone uses and abuses a lot of the editing and film effects that have made his films for the last decade something of a torment to sit through (rendering bad films like Alexander and Any Given Sunday truly torturous and unwatchable), but at least he doesn’t use them too much, doesn’t let them obscure too much of what’s going on.
This of course brings me to the ending, or should I say endings, because this flick uses the conceit of having two endings, one which stays true to the novel, and then a strange “Well, that’s what I romantically thought would happen, but here is what actually happened” second ending completely the opposite of the first. My jaw dropped when this happened, as strange as I thought the first ending was, the second just made me think they’d completely fucked the whole film up by rendering the ending meaningless.
With a day to think about it, I’m somewhat less horrified by the gall of Stone trying to eat his cake and fuck it too, but I’m still quite sure that the ending makes me somewhat not care, because it reminded me I was watching an entertainment, a fiction, a façade that we drape our feelings and thoughts all over in order to be diverted for a while. I can’t imagine the people who could be pleased by those endings, either of them, since their cumulative effect is to negate each other and to make it seem like there was no real point to the story.
The book ending makes even less sense than the Stone ending, so I don’t know which is the least affecting. It’s a toss up, though the second one at least ties in to the theme of the title, being that savagery, or being a savage, is a matter of perspective, and that the atavistic definition could be preferable if the modern world you live in is one of executions and kidnappings.
Well done, Stone. Even when you seemed like you were making a decent genre exercise, you still managed to fuck things up by Stone-a-fying the the movie. Kudos to you, sir, for pulling the rug out from under our brains, while we were being all supportive and forgiving of you. That’ll learn us to have hope, won’t it.
7 times and I forgot to mention how terrible John Travolta both looks and acts in this film out of 10
“There's something wrong with your love story, baby. They may love you but they will never love you as much as they love each other. Otherwise they wouldn't share you, would they?” – you’ve given me a lot to think about - Savages