Can savagery be beautiful? From the orchestrations of Hong Kong bullet operas to the guttural undulations of a good porn it seems as though the silver screen is the most accommodating medium for melding these two polar opposites together. Oliver Stone’s ‘Savages’ is a rather blatant entry into the field of films which draw you in with color and passion before making you cringe and shudder with one brilliant flash of unadorned violence. Is this done to convey some kind of message, however, or simply as a response to Eli Roth’s torture porn oeuvre?
Blake Lively is O, short for Ophelia of Hamlet fame, who opens the picture by narrating in a slightly disjointed manner that she may not survive this ordeal, followed shortly by a cut of her getting the good God fucked out of her by Chon. She describes Chon (Taylor Kitsch) as a troubled war vet with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, but I don’t know, he never seems so broken up to me as he is stripped down and pure of vision. His counter-partner is Ben (Aaron Johnson) who spends most of his free time building freshwater wells in disadvantaged nations of the third world and making love to O when he’s back in the Laguna Beach area. O tells us that together they form a single whole and they all love each other fully, and while various antagonists will question the set up throughout the show, that fact remains the guiding principle for all of the action all the way through to the climax.
Ben, Chon, and O grow weed together, the best weed in the world, and manage a clean distribution chain with little hassle and lots of profit. DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) keeps the fuzz at a distance for his cut along with a little kind kush for his chemo-ridden wife. Conflict is of course the essence of drama and Elena (Salma Hayek) provides it as the head of a Mexican drug cartel who’s aim to is muscle Ben and Chon’s operation into her fold. Conducting business from the serene seclusion of a hilltop villa and wrapped in fine clothes and large jewels she conveys the wrathful possibility of a coiled cobra while her down and dirty, ugly as sin bagman Lado (Benicio Del Toro) conducts the actual violence and documents the results on cell phone camera. Their partnership is as balanced as the one between our anti-heroes but the discord between Lado and Elena echoes into trouble brewing on their shared horizon while Ben and Chon seem to conduct business with the same cooperation and trust with which they double team O.
The duality of tactics continues as the cartel sends them a bloody invitation to talk and arranges for the meet in the lush confines of a 4-star hotel, sending their smartly dressed accounting and PR representatives who crocodile smile throughout the negotiations. Ben wants out of the drug game while Chon wants to kill everyone there on the spot, backed up with the ex-Seal team armed with high powered rifles to do so, we have to wonder if that would have drastically changed the course of events to come. Probably not, since half of the currency of the business seems to be brutality and bloodshed. Elena decides that she’s going to seal the deal by kidnapping O and forcing the boys into indentured servitude for their unwillingness to play by her rules. She did not, however, plan on the counteroffensive the boys launch, and the rest of the film plays out not so much as a ‘who’s scamming who’ but as a ‘everyone fucks everyone’ kind of story with Tarentino levels of bloodshed and barbarism.
Now what separates Savages from the ‘Cranks’ and ‘Fast and Furious’s’ of the world seems to be Stone’s quiet meditations on what drives and unites the players. Every action sequence seems to be counterbalanced by moments of extreme tenderness and the repeating theme of familial love. In one poignant scene Elena has whisked O out of the dog kennel confines of her initial captivity to a hilltop mansion where they share a meal of lamb chops and red wine. As O runs through her spotty and indulged history Elena cuts her off “Do all Americans talk like this? Don’t you ever think of your future?” O retorts “That’s kind of funny, looking at the circumstances.” referring to the likelihood of her murder by the end of the ordeal. They continue to trade barbs and open up as Elena reveals that she took over the cartel after her husband and sons were killed, her obligation is to their honor and her surviving daughter who lives comfortably in California. O is equally loyal to Ben and Chon seeing as her own parents have never shown much interest in her life and the love the boys have for her remains strong despite the situation its gotten her into.
Dennis and Lado share a similar scene later in the film, as a pair of ageing businessmen who just happen to stand on opposite sides of the law, both are motivated by their children to keep on with their chosen lines of work as they negotiate life and death deals over the kitchen table at gun point. There seems to be a definite old guard vs. new guard feel from all of the actors here with Travolta, Del Toro, and Hayek giving great performances from a place of comfort in their careers. Blake Lively has the most to prove and rises to the challenge whereas Kitsch and Johnson seem—at first glance—as though they could be replaced by any soft/hard duo of young and attractive start ups but as the scenes build it becomes clear that they’re making the tightrope walk of the love triangle, business partnership, and men of purpose vengeance spree look easy through unvarnished acting chops.
It’s a strange story and at first I was suspicious of Stone’s ability to create something coherent out of it when he’s so far removed from the Natural Born Killers days. With a less lauded director I might say he fails at finding the message, as the questions of what makes us human/how are we such animals never get answered. There’s no great affirmation of the power of love or friendship even though none of the characters’ intents would work without it. Certainly lacking in the morality play department, the punishments get doled out not in accordance with moral weight but rather by the simple mathematics of who can outmaneuver the others to a point of supremacy. There’s a certain line of thought that says in order to accept the overarching chaos and carnage that takes place in a film like this you have to somehow absolve yourself with a redemptive message about our humanity or a similar line of feel goodness. I wonder if Oliver Stone is rejecting this notion of penance for his film or just saying ‘I made this, you figure it out.’ While I can’t say there’s anything abrasively wrong with the film it seems to lack that extra 10% in the form of a little bit better cohesion between all the elements, the ending too is a real tragedy but you’ll have to buy the ticket and take the ride to see it yourself.