“Savages,” the new film from Oliver Stone, is a thriller made by a director I’ve often admired about characters I despise.
I have nothing against films whose protagonists are a bit on the shady side–indeed, “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White shares a similar profession with this film’s “heroes,” and he’s fascinating. But “Breaking Bad” is also equipped with a point of view; it knows exactly what it wants us to think of Walt and the situations he finds himself in. “Savages” is a brutal, unpleasant mess that veers recklessly from satire to thriller to frothy soap opera before totally jumping the rails in its final moments.
Based on Don Winslow’s novel, “Savages” focus on Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), two best friends who’ve combined their talents to grow and sell California’s best weed. Ben, a genius hippie Buddhist, is a botanical whiz who knows how to properly cultivate the product for maximum highs. Chon, an ex-soldier recently home from Afghanistan, is the duo’s muscle, with a network of former warfighters at his disposal to conduct the more low-brow aspects of the business. Despite their personality differences, Ben and Chon have been best friends since high school and share everything–their profits, their home and even their girlfriend O. (Blake Lively). O is a drifter who finds herself equally loved by both men, and has no problem giving herself to both without the slightest qualms.
Ben and Chon find themselves on the bad side of the Baja Cartel when they spurn a partnership offer, putting themselves in the sites of the cartel’s boss (Salma Hayek) and her sadistic henchman Lado (Benicio del Toro). The cartel kidnaps O and makes Ben and Chon a deal: they can partner together for three years. After a year, if the deal is working out, they’ll release O on good faith. Otherwise, they’ll cut off her head. Further complicating matters is a DEA agent (John Travolta) with no problem playing both sides of the fence–and, if the fence is paying well, he’ll play for it as well. Ben and Chon, determined to get out of the game with O once and for all, decide they can play just as brutal as their adversaries and begin waging war on the cartel.
Stone’s recently been missing the energy and edge that filled his best work. While “W.” had its moments, “World Trade Center” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” found the director robbed of the ingenuity and passion that made “JFK,” “Platoon” and “Natural Born Killers” so resonant. With “Savages,” the director seems re-energized, and he’s more than eager to go back to his old tricks, switching up film stock, color and speed from frame to frame as he weaves this frenzied tale. Those who were disappointed that Stone seemed to go soft in recent years will find that he’s not lost his capacity to shock–there’s a perverse glee he has in pushing the film’s sexuality and violence (there’s a torture sequence here that made me uncomfortable in a way that I haven’t been since “Hostel.”) If you like that sort of thing, you may enjoy the movie more than I did–I found it all a bit unpleasant.
But Stone’s best films worked not because the director piled on the visual trickery and shocked for shock’s sake, but because he used all of his tools in service of his voice. Love him or hate him (and plenty of people are on both sides of that equation), Stone’s greatest gift has always been his anger and passion and the way he’s used film to weave his polemics, be they through stories of drama, war or satire.
Aside from a glancing remark that none of the trouble Ben and Chon find themselves in may never have happened if marijuana was legal, Stone doesn’t say anything meaningful. This is not his polemic about the war on drugs, the viciousness of the cartels or even a satire about the inefficiency and corruption of the DEA. All of those elements are present, but Stone never finds one thread to focus on. The tone veers wildly–sometimes it’s an action comedy about two guys in over their heads, sometimes a dark comedy about the drug war and other times it’s a Spanish soap opera about a cartel leader trying to connect with her daughter. It’s easy to say Stone is staying away from his previous politically driven films and just telling a story–but the tone is so inconsistent that I think it’s more likely that he lost the thread. With a little more focus, the brutality–or even the moments of unexpected humor–might have made more sense.
A major problem is making O our entry point into this world. Lively is not up to the film’s challenges and O is such a thinly sketched character that she comes across as disaffected and ditzy. We’re supposed to believe she’s wonderful enough that Ben and Chon risk their lives for, but there’s never anything beguiling, mysterious or alluring about her. There’s a subplot involving Lively and Hayek’s characters in a potentially twisted mother-daughter relationship, but Stone drops it after one scene.
No one’s going to accuse Stone of incompetence, and there are individual moments that work very well. A sequence involving a Ben and Chon’s encounter with a police officer at an inopportune moments is highly suspenseful, and the director amps up the chaos during a raid on some drug runners. The aforementioned torture sequence is chilling and disturbing, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
I appreciate that the film never drags Ben and Chon into a contrived conflict–the two have strong chemistry and one of the film’s strengths is the way the partners complement each other, like some perverse marriage. Johnson, best known for “Kick-Ass,” is strongest, particularly in the scenes where the peace-loving Ben has to deal with the new reality his choices have made for him. Kitsch, who is still licking his wounds from the (unfair) failure of “John Carter” and (very fair) bomb of “Battleship,” is unhinged and terrifying as Chon, although I would have appreciated if the film dwelt more on the post traumatic stress disorder that it’s hinted he wrestles with.
Also fantastic is Del Toro, who takes every sympathetic, righteous faculty he found as a DEA agent in “Traffic” and buries it beneath Lado’s sadistic persona. A hitman who enjoys his job a little too much and values loyalty only by who’s paying the most for it, the actor is fantastic here, a genuinely scary and intimidating presence.
Hayek and Travolta are both hampered by Stone’s failure to find a consistent tone. Hayek is strong as a woman unwittingly thrust into the cartel’s leadership, but is wrapped up in a relationship with her daughter that is pitched more at telenovela histrionics. Travolta, meanwhile, comes out of the gate solid as an opportunistic DEA agent with a dying wife, but the role devolves into comedy that never gels with the sadistic, violent story we’re watching.
The film’s final act falls completely apart, as the tone careens back and forth and Stone introduces a narrative cheat that doesn’t fit with what we’ve seen before and robs the film’s finale of any meaning, power or nuance. It’s simply a cheap trick so he can have both his dark and sweet endings at the same time, and it flat out doesn’t work.
What’s left is a film full of some strong performances with a few moments of delicious suspense. But Stone’s grasp of the material is so unfocused that what sticks in my mind is a brutal, violent, depraved and pointless mess that reminds me that while the director has some wonderful skills, maybe it’s best to let him get angry before he goes behind the camera again.