Savages, about a trio of entitled SoCal kids drawn into the murderous orbit of a Mexican drug cartel, is a return to form of sorts for director Oliver Stone. Specifically, it’s a return to the spectacularly overheated, hopped-up form of his ’90s works — The Doors, Natural Born Killers, U-Turn, etc. — which is cause either for rejoicing or head-shaking, depending on your tastes. Me, I have no love for those movies — or any of Stone’s films, for that matter — but I have to admit they hold a mindless appeal if I’m in the right mood. Watching a Stone film is like reading trash fiction on the beach without sunscreen, falling asleep, then waking up with sand on one side of your face and third-degree burns on the other. You feel disgusting, but you know you’ll probably do it again in the future.
Savages actually started out life as a piece of trash fiction by novelist Don Winslow, who wrote the book in 2010 in consultation with Stone. (Presumably, Winslow knew Stone would adapt it from the very beginning, and he’s credited for writing the screenplay along with Stone and Shane Salerno.) If anything, the book is trashier than the movie. It consists of 290 chapters, most of them less than a page, and it’s all dialogue, surface detail, and hip, macho attitudinizing. Basically, it’s the prose equivalent of Stone’s style, if “style” isn’t too strong a word. Stone doesn’t so much dramatize a subject as snort it — the opportunities for sensationalism in the material go right to his head, and before you know it he’s turned every scene into a slick commercial for itself, featuring ten different camera filters, a half-dozen film stocks, and a million unmotivated cuts. He might have an urgent, up-to-the-minute subject — in this case, America’s failing war on drugs and the corresponding rise in Mexican crime — but he’s so slick and lurid you can’t take anything he shows you seriously. The one (highly questionable) virtue of Savages is that, for once, Stone doesn’t seem to be taking things all that seriously, either. He’s just happy supplying tawdry thrills.
The film’s central triumvirate consists of Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch), and Ophelia (Blake Lively), bronzed cool cats living together in a palatial waterfront home in Laguna Beach making enormous quantities of cash selling the best dope in all of California. Ben is the idealistic botanist-entrepreneur who just wants everyone to feel the love his product brings, and he makes up for his law-breaking by channeling a portion of the proceeds into improving the lives of African children. (This is illustrated by showing him play with an African child for approximately one second.) Chon, meanwhile, is a jaded Iraq War vet who expects the worst from people, and he fulfills the role of thuggish enforcer whenever Ben’s clients pull fast ones. The two improbable friends are bound by Ophelia, or O, a sun-kissed free spirit who loves both men and binds them in perfect polyamorous bliss. (Make that Hollywood-style polyamorous bliss — the guys never touch one another.) As O puts it in her zonked-out, dippy voiceover, Ben is a Buddhist and Chon is a “baddist,” and together they make the perfect man. (O’s wordplay knows no bounds — later she tells us she has orgasms while Chon has “wargasms.”)
The plot kicks in when a Mexican drug cartel invades this paradise, kidnaps O, and offers to trade her for a piece of the business. To get her back, Ben and Chon have to get down in the mud with the “savages” who took her. Though the narrative holds together well enough (even over the protracted 130-minute running time) it has no centre, because Stone shows next to no interest in the two men. Ben and Chon haven’t been given inner lives, they’re just bland yin and yang symbols, and there’s no horror — not even dumb, kicky horror — when they have to compromise themselves and their ideals. Oddly, the semi-vacant O, who spends most of the movie in captivity, makes a much larger claim on our sympathies and our imaginations. I’m not sure Lively is an actress with major resources, but she pulls off the difficult trick of making us care about a shallow, not-very-bright character. O is so guileless and open that, like Ben and Chon, you feel protective of her, and you can believe it when the casually cruel cartel leader, Elena (Salma Hayek), develops mothering instincts toward her.
Ultimately, it’s the Mexican characters — specifically Hayek and Benicio Del Toro as her chief henchman — who make the movie worth watching. From their perspective, it’s the spoiled, rich white kids who are the true savages, and they back their case up by being infinitely more vivid than them. Del Toro isn’t much more than a moustache-twirling villain, but all the bad things he does are motivated by an amusing, weary antipathy toward stupid gringoes. You look in his eyes and see the years of bullshit he feels he’s endured at their hands. As for Hayek, she’s magnificent. Her Elena is the only character with any depth or history, and everything she does holds moral weight. Elena lost most of her family to the drug trade, yet she’s so steeped in it she has no illusions about getting out — all she can hope for is to stay on top of it and try to give her beloved, estranged daughter a better future. Hayek is alternately sympathetic and steely here, and she’s so poised and scary she’s practically archetypal. She could’ve been great on an episode of Breaking Bad.
Scott MacDonald writes about cinema for Toronto Standard.