Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Director: Oliver Stone
Screenwriters: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively
Now here’s Oliver Stone as we haven’t really seen him since Any Given Sunday in 1999: hyperactive, hyperviolent, and utterly convinced that the amped-up debauchery of his heroes and villains is transcendence itself. It’s not, but Stone’s starry-eyed pining for sex, drugs, and glory is often its own justification. Where other filmmakers might seek to horrify or disgust — or moralize, or perhaps approach the material with a jaded, no-big-deal cynicism — Stone wants to convey lust; hunger. It’s not that he can’t look away, it’s that he doesn’t remotely want to. Which is misguided and perverse and probably immoral, but damned if it’s not arresting. At least until it starts to come at the expense of everything else.
Savages, then, head-over-heels adores the trio of gorgeous young things at its center: O (Blake Lively), short for “Ophelia,” and Chon and Ben (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson), two pot-growing SoCal businessmen who love her — the former a hardened Iraq War vet and the latter a shrewd Berkeley do-gooder. Early in the film there are two steamy sex scenes, one with each of the men, shoot with a gauzy, idealized frankness and set to O’s breathless narration (“I had orgasms; he had wargasms.”). They are simultaneously pretty hot and kind of hilarious. Stone is nothing if not earnestly enthusiastic about this stuff.
The protagonists tangle with a powerful Mexican drug cartel, led by an amoral and insecure matriarch (Salma Hayek) and her psychotic right-hand man (Benicio del Toro). The cartel moves in on their territory with an offer they can’t refuse, prompting a plan to finally abandon the lucrative but dangerous business, take their considerable savings, and fuck off to Indonesia for a couple years. But the cartel has other ideas, and Ben and Chon are forced to square off against ruthless south-of-the-border enforcers and a crooked DEA agent (John Travolta) to protect O and win their freedom.
This stuff certainly isn’t boring, particularly with Stone unleashing every stylistic firework in his arsenal. (I did wish the soundtrack were not so whiplash-inducing, dashing from reggae to world to hip-hop to Adam Peters’ somewhat incongruous orchestral score in the span of a couple minutes.) But he never quite finds the story’s center of gravity. At first, I thought the film might be about American business: in the beginning, O tells us that her guys’ operation is 99% Buddhist, with Ben expertly keeping tempers at bay, and 1% “battist,” with Chon stepping in as the heavy, but it’s inevitable that the balance has to shift. At other points I thought that it might, relatedly, be about Ben’s corruption — the loss of his delusion that he can stay above the fray. (When he talks loftily to Chon about changing the world, Chon smirks and informs him, “You can’t change the world; it changes you.”) The movie also hints at a sneaky sort of cultural relativism, with the Americans and the Mexicans pointedly calling each other “savages” for very different reasons.
Ultimately, Savages is not enough about any of those things. And here, what’s most appealing about Stone’s m.o. starts to turn on him. Rather than focus on any theme or character arc, he spends much of the latter 90 minutes of the film graphically fetishizing the cruelty of the Mexican villains — the blood, torture and callous violence. I wasn’t remotely offended by this, but it’s an epic distraction, and not even Stone’s peculiarly leering gaze can make it interesting. Stone wants so badly to compose a rollicking symphony of depravity, he neglects, y’know, his movie.
There’s also a failure of charisma. Stone is clearly taken with his leads physically, and for good reason, but neither Kitsch nor Johnson nor Lively have a lot of screen presence, and their performances are flat to the point where each time a real actor shows up — someone like Demian Bichir or Emile Hirsch, who really should have had Johnson’s part — you can feel the movie jolt awake. Again, Stone’s preoccupations are entertaining in themselves, but they interfere with the final product.
As Savages flailed merrily to its erratic, muddled conclusion, I wondered if this was the Oliver Stone mode I really preferred — or whether we wouldn’t be better off with, say, the likes of the equally bombastic but more tightly crafted Nixon or Wall Street. Those films may be better, but there’s something to be said for this maximalist version of the old hand provocateur. Savages falls apart, but it falls apart with a certain integrity — I think that Stone made more or less exactly the movie he wanted. I have a grudging respect for it.
— Eugene Novikov