Director/Coscreenwriter: Oliver Stone
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
In spite of his decline in stature, Oliver Stone is one of few living American filmmakers who maintains the mystique of a certain kind of artist, one that can stir intense feelings of both admiration and opprobrium. Stone’s status is thanks to his unabashed political viewpoints, his willingness to play the provocateur, and his style of filmmaking. As difficult as it is to take Stone seriously in some of the attitudes he’s adopted or had heaped upon him—mainstream film intellectual, leftist historian, or grand visionary—the man does demand admiration is his engagement with cinema not simply as a means of storytelling, but also of expressivity in its many layers, from the theoretical to the tactile. His greatest works tend to have a quality of incantatory hallucination, reprocessing whatever material he’s working with, be it popular history, conspiracy theory, or biopic, into a neon-emblazoned, pseudo-mythological tapestry. But Stone’s always had one foot planted in pulp storytelling, going back to his early directing and screenwriting work, including his first two films as director, Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981), both horror movies. Stone’s career in the last decade or so has been floundering, with the deliriously bad Alexander (2004) and patent plays to recapture former glory with the half-assed Bush biopic W. (2008) and the half-witted revisit of Gordon Gekko, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010). Savages, which embraces Stone’s pulp side, is a neo-noir follow-up to his efforts in the genre, Natural Born Killers (1994) and U-Turn (1997), and seems, at least superficially, a triumph for his stylistic impulses over his analytical passions. Yet, whilst imperfect, the result is easily his best film since at least his panoramic 1999 football epic Any Given Sunday.
Savages, based on a novel by Don Winslow, who cowrote the script, is built around some hallowed motifs of the classic noir film. It presents a central character who has the recent experience of war and the attendant psychological hangover that finds a bleak accord with troubling forces on the home front. Stone makes this motif more personal, as he translates this classic noir figuration into the maxims of the southern Californian counterculture Stone experienced from his own plunge into early ’70s Hollywood after returning from Vietnam. Add a third layer of experience: Savages is very contemporary in its depiction of pacific idealism and ruthless survivalism in purified conflict, and throws moneyed, layabout Yankee insouciance against Mexican machismo in a drama layered with conceptual grit and no small amount of absurdist camp. His “heroes” form an oddball ménage à trois. Surfer girl O (Blake Lively), short for Ophelia, is pretty and pretty spoiled, but not actually vacuous, as a scion of Laguna Beach aristocracy. She’s shacked up with two men who have been pals since school and still are, in spite of their yin/yang disparity in temperament. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) a former soldier, is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, whilst Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a bohemian with a gift for botany, one the two lads have parlayed into a hugely successful marijuana growing and selling operation. They provide their nation with bountiful pleasures and make a small fortune in return, supporting their blissed-out lifestyle in a vaulted castle high above the beach. Like Shia LaBeouf’s character in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Ben is attempting to walk a tightrope between desire for the kind of high capitalist success firmly instilled in him as a young, intelligent American, and ideals-driven altruism dictated by his other ingrained faiths, and clearly represents Stone’s simultaneously hope and fear for the passions of modern youth.
At the film’s outset, Ben returns from a trip to oversee the various charities and life improvement projects he’s been funding in Africa and South-East Asia. Chon, on the other hand, has no real purpose in life other than trying to burn the experience of war out of his system with sex and weed; his reflexes, once prodded, snap him back instantly into a warrior posture. Their names evoke both Cheech and Chong, the iconic stoner humourists, and Ben and Jerry, famed hippie entrepreneurs. O is squeezed between them, sometimes literally, as beauty and emotion actualised both in a primal fashion—O is constantly associated with natural images and the carnal attractions of sex, getting high, and rolling on zephyrs of other, sometimes more numinous sensations—and a much more contemporary one, as the avatar of all pleasures that come from being rich and young. Of course, it is O who becomes the true battleground, as a fearsome Mexican drug cartel is determined to annex Ben and Chon’s operation. The brewing storm is announced when the lads receive an email video of a masked killer playing with severed heads, as prelude to a more superficially businesslike approach by envoys of drug baroness Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek), making a proposal that soon proves to be, rather, an ultimatum. Although the boys turn it down, they’re smart enough to know that the cartel won’t really take no for an answer, so they order their wizard broker pal Spin (Emile Hirsch) to liquefy their assets, and plan to lay low in Indonesia.
But the trio spends rather too long in a last druggy orgy, and the following day, O is snatched whilst making a final “pilgrimage” to the local mall, with one of Chon’s army friends, asked to watch her, shot by Elena’s goons. Elena’s number-one thug and stateside operative is Lado (Benicio Del Toro), introduced assassinating an American lawyer, Chad (Shea Wigham), and encouraging his trainee Esteban (Diego Cataño) to finish off Chad’s girlfriend (Karishma Ahluwalia). Lado takes delight in his capacity to dole out violence, pausing to take piquant snaps on his cellphone of the carnage he’s caused. Lado supervises O’s kidnapping and housing in a rough tin shack in the middle of nowhere, where she’s quickly driven to despair by both the unpleasant surroundings and companions, and the constant diet of pizza (“Maybe a salad once in a while?!” she demands of her captors). Meanwhile Elena, ensconced in her mansion in Tijuana, applies specific pressure upon Ben and Chon to get them to cooperate, inducing them to ship a huge quantity of their product to her people, but, with seemingly incongruous honesty, paying them what they’re owed. Nonetheless, Chon insists that they have to regard the cartel as “Taliban,” fanatics impossible to deal with who will probably kill O once she’s no longer immediately useful. They turn to their friendly neighbourhood corrupt DEA agent, Dennis (John Travolta), to get information about their enemy. Dennis, who turns a blind eye to the boys’ operation in part because they give him weed to help ease his dying wife’s pain, resists helping them, at least until Chon drives a knife through his hand. Using the information Dennis hurriedly obtains, Chon forms a strategy: gathering together more of his army buddies, he raids one of Elena’s money shipments, hoping to shake her organisation and capture enough cash to buy O back.
Savages could have easily toppled over into smarmy, black-comic grotesquery or cloddishly nasty thriller fare, but Stone’s sense of style and his range of dramatic modes keep the film in a dance between definitive postures. Stone’s delight in semi-experimental visual flourishes, a hallmark of his major work but muted of late, returns with an artful restraint, as he creates a strange lysergic mood around O and her voiceover reveries, the sensual indulgence which forms the texture of her life with Ben and Chon. The sunstruck, corporeal tincture of Dan Mindel’s photography is replete with dreamy double exposures and switches between colour and monochrome that seem less forced than when Stone used such touches in earlier work; here, they feed his efforts to capture the feeling of stepping back and forth between places of sensual ecstasy and the flashy crudity of everyday life in a consumer paradise. This paradise is one into which Elena, Lado, and the rest of their crew erupt like an invasion, both a spreading of the blight of the Mexican drug wars right into the backyard of the privileged pups who get wasted on its products whilst barely noticing where it comes from, and a familiar emanation of existential terrors vital to the genre. But savagery breeds savagery, and the key irony here is Stone’s mindfulness that privilege and wealth are always, on some level, the product of violence and pillage and that the memory of how to gather and keep such advantage might be shallow beneath the seeming blitheness of its inheritors. Chon proves all too ready to go medieval in defending his and Ben’s lady fair from the barbarian hordes, and Ben must get in touch with his basest character, too, if he wants to help save O and prove his equal stake in her rescue.
Film-buff winks are spread throughout Savages, including O’s likening of the trio’s situation to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and there are hints and hues of New Wave classics like Easy Rider (1969) and Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). This referential streak is most apparent in Hayek’s supremely entertaining Elena, who wears a black dragon-queen hairstyle and plays the role handed to her almost by accident—she was a trophy wife who inherited the cartel from her husband and then had to grow into the role. The notion that Elena is both a genuinely cruel and powerful overlord and a self-constructed piece of theatre is underlined when, late in the film, she strips off her wig, revealing her real, netted hair, like one of Pedro Almodovar’s camp queens of chic. Moreover, whilst Elena is introduced applying ruthless, vindictive pressure upon Ben and Chon, seeming to relish her capacity to force them to exactly what they don’t want to do, Savages explains Elena’s own curious quandary. She has a daughter, Magda (Sandra Echeverría), whose safety she has protected by making it believed she is dead, when, in fact, she’s living exactly the same mall-rat lifestyle as O, and even grazes past her just before O is kidnapped. The parallel is obvious, as is Elena’s eventual concilatory moves toward O, who is a momentary stand-in for Magda at Elena’s usually very lonely, if luxurious, dinners. Everybody else is someone Elena has to snap, bite, and wound to keep them in line for the sake of her prosperity and safety. When Ben and Chon finally turn the tables on her by capturing Magda and demanding a straight swap for O, Stone makes it an alarming inversion of immediate sympathy and power: Elena visibly struggles between twin poles of desperate maternal deference and her more familiar stance of potentate aggression, and as O more confidently asserts herself in the face of this dilemma, Elena wallops her in the face with a brittle fury that’s partly, palpably justified.
Stone’s artifice-infused approach might seem at odds with the grim and vicious material with real-world ramifications. And yet it seems very much part of his purpose, to invert the usual moral standards and assumptions of this sort of fare, placing it a distance from pablum like Man on Fire (2004), where destroying sundry Latinos who dare to endanger the pretty white girl is easily facilitated. Given that Stone made his first real mark in the mainstream penning the racist paranoias of Midnight Express (1978), his journey to the point where he offers Yankee stoners and swarthy brutes as two sides of the same coin is notable, if not entirely reconstructed. In a crucial plot movement, Ben and Chon use Dennis’ information and Spin’s skill to construct a false trail that will incriminate Elena’s loyal lieutenant, Alex (Demián Bichir). In a more conventional thriller, this turn of events would lead to a dramatic coup where an enemy would be neatly disposed of by his own nasty fellows, but here Stone tightens the screws of moral implication, as Lado turns Alex’s torture and execution into another of his sadistic pieces of performance art. Lado makes it even nastier by getting Ben to set Alex on fire, a consequence to his and Chon’s deception that ensures they can’t neatly wash their hands of what they did. Lado suspects the lads are behind the robbery, but he himself is playing a game, having signed up with Elena’s arch rival El Azul (Joaquín Cosio), whose rise has made Elena desperate and forming the reason for her attempts at hostile takeovers of independents like Ben and Chon.
Whilst moral ambiguity is undoubtedly part of Stone’s aims, his capacity for sympathy, or at least for finding the absurd humanity in even the most disturbed and disturbing characters, is deeply enmeshed with the film’s actual purposes. Lado, with his calculated effronteries—from Alex’s execution to his revelation to O that he raped her when she was drugged—feels like a skit on the kind of hulking quasi-ethnic monster Javier Bardem played in No Country For Old Men (2007), the familiar merciless villain revealed, as the film goes on, as a hypocrite. He is uptight in his need to assert his machismo (he turns back the titular pejorative on our heroes for their perverted sex lives) whilst kowtowing to a woman, and finally revealing that he’s nowhere near as smart and effectively ruthless as he thinks he is. By the same token, where it would have been easy to make the lead characters dim bulbs, as in far too many blackly comic modern thrillers, Stone gives his heroes peculiar nobility. Where it would have been especially tempting to present O as a caricature, as the story’s narrator, she is something like its poetic mediator.
Stone desires, with appealing earnestness and a romanticism that has occasionally rescued his oeuvre from hyped-up macho excess, to leave his heroes with their fundamental passions undimmed. Perhaps one reason a lot of critics were irritated by the trio is because Stone so patently does not wish to punish them for their transgressive lifestyle, but only wishes them to break off entirely from a corrupting world, as opposed to the more familiar stance seen in such post-global financial crisis parables, like this year’s good Swedish thriller Headhunters, in which the hero is clearly conceived as an avatar for modern venality in need of a lot of punishment and cleansing before redemption. Much as he wants to indict Ben, Chon, and O for participating in the vile roundelay of this war of possession, Stone wants to preserve for as long as possible the ideal they represent and sustain in their ménage à trois, for the trio really do add up to one good person. Stone desists from studying any fault lines in the relationship: a last-minute confession by O that she knows one day their idyllic partnership will end is a mere parenthesis to a final drift into a wilfully “savage” state.
There are obvious parallels between Savages and another of the year’s strong films, Miss Bala, which depicts the drug war from a Mexican perspective. Each film revolves around some strikingly similar motifs, particularly in following an essentially innocent beauty at the mercy of rapacious criminals, and in spite of their great differences in style and emphasis, both end sarcastically with the powers that be parading a victory that is mendacious and the protagonists held in jail until it’s safely expedient to dump them. Wherea Miss Bala is elliptic, experiential, and grave, Savages has a kind of Rabelaisian fecundity. Miss Bala is a nightmarish present-tense; Savages is predicated on a vision of fundamental farcicality. If Savages maintained the intensity and clarity of its best scenes, it would be a small classic, but there are many points, particularly in an awkward third quarter, where it fumbles for focus. Maintaining a grip on narrative integrity has always been a problem for the director, and here Stone becomes a little too fond of Travolta’s excellent, funny, but properly supporting performance as the six-faced, corrupt, but not really malevolent, Dennis. On the other hand, Savages, with its overt playfulness of story and style, resists disintegrating entirely, as several of Stone’s recent works have done after good starts, and, in fact, manages to get back onto an even keel for an excellent finish, as the exchange of O and Magda sets the scene for a Peckinpah-esque orgy of killing. Stone goes for the sort of narrative switchback many a would-be cool, young director has pulled off in the past two decades in offering a false finish and then a “real” one.
Thus, in the first version, O offers a high tragedy ending that sees Magda reject her mother and flee, Elena and Lado killed, and, when Ben is mortally wounded, O and Chon decide to join him in death. And then we get “what really happened.” What’s different about Stone’s take on such a gimmick is not that it simply tries to pull the rug out from under the audience by jerking between emotional reactions, or, like many variations on this idea, essentially representing the director winking at the audience to let them know they’re actually above such recherché things as endings, but that it actually suggests that the first, downbeat ending is in fact the happy, romantic one. The sight of the threesome expiring together is indeed a kind of perfection, an apotheosis and proof of their mutual loyalty and their retained purity in the face of horror, that the “real” ending denies them, leaving them to face growing older and possibly apart. On the other hand, Elena gets to make a genuinely sacrifice for Magda, outing herself at least as the Joan Crawford character she’s hinted at, Lado speeds away with an impish wave to become a kingpin in his own right, and Dennis gets to make himself the hero. Given that Savages is finally less about drugs, crime, or geopolitics, than it is about strange versions of love, and about the fear of loss, of either the openness of youth or the consolations of aging, the “true” finale is about the vagaries, ironies, and unavoidable compromises of life.