Oliver Stone’s Savages is a powerfully visceral moviegoing experience: a gritty, gorgeous story about pot growers in California, crime lords in Mexico and the perversion of the modern-day drug wars. It’s a tailor-made subject for Stone, who knows all about drug-themed Hollywood thrillers and set the standard for them in his early years as a screenwriter-for-hire; he dealt with hashish in Midnight Express, cocaine in Scarface and heroin in Year of the Dragon. Now comes this movie, packed with sexy leading stars and slam-bang action sequences. Unusually youthful in point-of-view for a film made by a 65-year old director, it’s a masterful Hollywood entertainment, as well as a refreshing directorial comeback—this is Stone’s best movie since Nixon.
Savages has been described by some critics (including this critic and this critic) as a departure for Stone—a conventional genre picture with “no message”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The movie is a single-minded assault on the drug wars, which, Stone argues, hurt more than they help; they lend assistance to power-hungry drug lords (and greedy servants of the law) while addicts and manufacturers are jailed, raped, tortured and decapitated. “This is not a war on drugs,” Stone told Matt Zoller Seitz. “This is a war for money. It’s being fought in Mexico for money, and it’s being fought in the United States for money — the United States being the biggest sap of all, because we give the most.”
The movie is based on the novel by Don Winslow, which I read at the beginning of the summer and finished in a couple of weeks, finding it damn-near-impossible to put down. Part of my interest in reading the book stemmed from the fact that I had never gone into one of Stone’s movies with prior knowledge of the source material before; I was curious to see how well Stone’s vision of the story would match up with my own. The book is a highly-recommended page-turner that raises serious moral questions about torture, drugs and the occasional necessity for violence in the world, and while the film doesn’t quite broach the deepest depths of its source material, Stone (who co-wrote the screenplay with Winslow and Shane Salerno) comes closer to it than perhaps any other filmmaker could have.
The heroes of Savages are three California pot-growers in their 20’s: Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ophelia (Blake Lively). They are the three greatest pot growers in the world. Ben is the botanist, the brains behind the science of marijuana growth. Chon is the Iraq War veteran with military connections enabling him to import the highest-quality weed all the way from Afghanistan. Ben is the Buddhist who takes 99% of the violence out of the weed business. Chon is the other half—the backup who always deals violently with anyone left who’s refusing to cooperate. And Ophelia, nicknamed “O.,” is the playmate sleeping with both of them—the glue holding their business partnership together, so to speak, and quite possibly the only thing maintaining their sanity as they continue to operate in an increasingly dangerous business. In opening voiceover narration, she summarizes the two boys’ worldviews on the basis of their sex lives: “Chon fucks. Ben makes love.”
Then, one morning, an email is sent to Chon’s laptop, and it changes everything. It’s a video of eight decapitated Mexican heads all in a row, and a message warning them that they have one last competitor standing in their way: the Baja Cartel of Mexico. They’re demanding Ben and Chon come and work for them, or else. A meeting is held, the boys turn down the offer, and the cartel quickly makes plans to teach them a lesson. “I found their weakness,” determines Elena (Salma Hayek), and pretty soon Ben and Chon are once again staring horrified at the screen of Chon’s laptop—this time, because O. has fallen into the clutches of the cartel’s right-hand man, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), while a synchronized voice threatens decapitation unless the boys reconsider their answer.
At the time I was reading Winslow’s book, I found this to be an irresistible premise for American fiction. We still live in a country that frowns upon marijuana as a taboo substance, even despite the admissions of our current president to having experimented with it during his youth ("I inhaled frequently. That was the point”). The genius of Savages is that it’s impossible for us not to sympathize with Ben and Chon; their line of business makes them criminals according to the law, and yet we expect this law to be overturned in our generation any day now. The timing of this movie is a key factor in its success. If pot were legal in America, we would have gotten a much different movie, in which Ben and Chon summon the help of the U.S. government as they handle negotiations to free O. (a convention we’ve seen in just about every hostage thriller). But because marijuana is still illegal in the U.S., Ben and Chon’s only option is to take matters into their own hands; for them to consult the authorities would be out of the question. Indeed, out of all of the film’s villains, perhaps the most evil is Dennis (John Travolta), the slimeball federal agent who accepts a bribe from the boys every week and is the only thing keeping them from doing time in prison just because of the plants they grow.
The film does for the drug cartels what Stone’s Any Given Sunday did for professional football, portraying it as a system so brutal a man’s eye can literally pop out of its socket at any given moment. These people will kill for money and for love. If Ben seeks nonviolent solutions, then Chon is far more trusting of his primitive instincts. He’ll do whatever it takes to get O. back, even if it means sticking a gun in his own mouth. While I would have liked more of the back-and-forth arguments about violence waged between Ben and Chon in Winslow’s book, Stone adapts enough of them to make his point. As Ben, Aaron Johnson has a great scene where he sobs hysterically after watching the blood of a Mexican thug blow up in his face; he absolutely nails the paralysis of a Buddhist watching his own system of values come crashing down before him. Kitsch, as Chon, is cool and quiet in a Steve McQueen sort of way; those who complained of his “uncharismatic” performance earlier this year as the hero of Andrew Stanton’s John Carter (which I loved) will find him more agreeable here, in a role where he earns charisma by playing an antihero instead. But the film’s most jaw-dropping portrayal of a savage is delivered by Demián Bichir as the cartel’s messenger, Alex, for reasons I will not divulge here, except to say that he has a scene so painful and harrowing, I was on the verge of tears watching it.
I have never bought the argument tossed around by Stone’s most fervent detractors that he’s too masculine a filmmaker to write strong roles for women; such critics ignore Hiep Thi Le as Le Ly Hayslip in Heaven and Earth, Joan Allen as the First Lady in Nixon, Cameron Diaz and Ann-Margaret as the Miami Sharks’ owners in Any Given Sunday, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a 9/11 survivor’s pregnant wife in World Trade Center. It should be said, however, that Savages is Stone’s finest hour to date for female roles; there has never been this many interesting women in a Stone film before. As Elena, Salma Hayek is not merely playing an entertaining femme fatale cartoon (as Jennifer Lopez was in U Turn). No, Hayek brings out the humanity of Elena; this is a woman constantly looking over her shoulder in macho Mexico, struggling to remind her male enemies who’s boss, coping with the lack of attention her teenage daughter (Sandra Echeverría) pays to her ("She is ashamed of me, and I am proud of her for it"). Blake Lively makes O. not an annoying bimbo, but a street-smart girl who learns from her nightmarish experience in captivity. The fact that Lively has a reputation as a posh actress makes her all the more appropriate for the role as opposed to somebody like Jennifer Lawrence, who is a fine actress herself and was originally intended to play O., but would have been less effective; her roles in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games suggest the charisma of a tomboy, rather than somebody as glamorous as O.
Del Toro, as Lado, plays what is unquestionably the most fearsome gigantic Latino in any American film since Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurgh in No Country for Old Men, and you can feel the dread enveloping the audience whenever he appears onscreen. In one scene, he is tasked with the duty of slowly feeding bits and pieces of steak to O. on the sharp prongs of a fork; it’s a moment so simple and yet so terrifying we expect him to jam it into her mouth at any moment. Another of the film’s most amusing scenes has Del Toro and Travolta, as Dennis (the actor’s greatest role in years), alone together in a luxurious kitchen while the two middle-aged men decide to strike a deal—one because he can, the other because he doesn’t have a choice.
For a $40 million film, Savages appears to be doing pretty well at the box office despite some truly nasty criticisms being mounted against the film on IMDB, The Huffington Post and the like—many of them over the film’s controversial ending (which is only half-faithful to Winslow’s novel). I won’t outright spoil how the film ends, except to say that it took me completely by surprise watching it in the theater, where I wondered if Stone was paying homage to his old Scarface pal Brian De Palma’s 2002 film-noir Femme Fatale, which employs a similar climactic technique. But I have no way of knowing at the moment if Stone ever even saw that movie, so in the meantime I’ll come up with a theory of my own.
I think Stone is making a point that Shakespearean tragedies don’t always get to end in, well… tragedy. That sometimes reality can be harsher, even when nobody has died. Think about it: the drug wars are a form of prohibition. What does prohibition do? It sends the crime rate skyrocketing. It punishes customers and rewards figures in positions of power (on both sides of the law). Stone feels the need to emphasize this, and so he ends the film in an unconventional way—in which villains profit, “good guys” are disgraced and justice is not served. The ending of Savages has been criticized by some as “sentimental”. I think it is anything but sentimental. While I’m not entirely sure what influenced Stone’s decision to play a cover version of “Here Comes the Sun” by Yuna in the end credits, consider this line in the song’s lyrics: Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces. And then retrace back to the ending. Who is smiling at the end of the film? Who isn’t?
Savages has restored Stone’s rightful place in Hollywood as one of America’s most important filmmakers. Looking back, his career since the late 90’s brought forth some decent movies and some lesser ones, but nothing like this that was worthy of his earlier, stronger work from the late 80’s and early 90’s. U Turn was goofy genre fun. Any Given Sunday was a fascinating mess. Alexander was an overbearing bore (the 2007 Final Cut is an exception). World Trade Center was noble and uplifting. W. was interesting, but lacked focus. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps was entertaining but slight. All of these films were either gems or failures, but none of them were masterpieces. This one is.