Oliver Stone’s tale of drugs, revenge and love is equal parts drama and comedy, making for another bold and engaging experiment from the director.
Oliver Stone’s latest film, Savages, opens with the jarring sound of a chainsaw motor in a pre-recorded video that reveals what will no doubt be a brutal execution, as a group of bound and gagged individuals find themselves at the mercy of drug cartel enforcers. Most viewers will recognize the execution video as a simulation for dramatic purposes, and perhaps not find it that frightening, but it does call to mind an infamous moment from Brian DePalma’s remake of Scarface, one of the most visceral and shocking scenes in cinema, also involving a chainsaw and also written by Stone. Though Stone has become a much more accomplished filmmaker than Scarface’s director, there are moments throughout Savages where it feels like an early Brian DePalma film. Maybe that’s because when Stone’s direction turns experimental and he plays as if he has nothing to lose, his films end up being a damn good time at the movies. Savages isn’t as experimental or engaging as say Natural Born Killers, but it’s Stone’s liveliest work in years and whatever steps the director has taken to light a creative fire under his ass, he needs to keep doing it.
Based on Don Winslow’s 2010 crime novel, Savages is the story of a trio of lovers who discover there’s no safe haven within the dangerous profession they’ve chosen. Narrating their story is Blake Lively’s SoCal surfer gal “O”, (as in Hamlet’s Ophelia) who is shared by Chon (Taylor Kitch), a shell-shocked ex-Navy SEAL and Ben (Aaron Johnson) a botanist and sensitive environmentalist. The production and sale of marijuana has been their occupation every since best friends Ben and Chon decided to go into business for themselves with the latter smuggling the finest seeds into the country after a tour in Afghanistan. Ben manages production of their product, overseeing various farms throughout the world, while Chon, the muscle, makes sure those that owe pay. Yes, the two friends “share” O and are both cool with that, with all three living in the same beach house. The neglected rich girl sees them as two halves of the perfect man, loving both equally both in and out of the bedroom.
Ben and Chon’s operation is so successful that it eventually catches the eye of a Mexican drug cartel. Elena (Salma Hayek), forced to become the head of the organization after the murders of her husband and sons, is engaged in a losing battle with Mexico’s infamous El Azul and desperately needs Ben and Chon’s network to expand within the U.S. The problem is they don’t play well with others or like sharing and when Elena’s people approach Ben and Chon with an offer to be absorbed into their organization they respectfully decline. To persuade the friends to reconsider, Elena orders her chief enforcer Lado (Benico Del Toro) to kidnap O and assure them she will meet a brutal end should they not come aboard.
Rather than follow Chon’s initial suggestion of shooting first and keep shooting until their rivals are dead, the pair decide to follow a more patient strategy. With the help of several of their techie employees, including sensible stoner Spin (a hilarious Emile Hirsch), Ben and Chon decide to dismantle Elena’s organization piece by piece from within. To acquire intel that even hacking through firewalls won’t reveal, they turn the heat up on their snitch, Dennis (John Travolta), a frantic DEA agent playing both sides. Meanwhile in a surprising turn of events, the captive O has slowly won over Elena, moving from the cage Lado has kept her to the mansion of his employer, the big boss herself. Elena as it turns out has mommy issues with her estranged daughter in the U.S. and after a few meetings with O, conversations and even dinner, slowly begins to bond with her captive. As Ben and Chon gradually take the offense – first secretly hitting one of Elena’s money shipments with the help of their ex-Navy SEAL pals, then framing one of her own men – sadistic guard dog Lado appears to be the only player with an eye on the actions of both sides, hoping to emerge on top. Even if it means selling out his own boss.
One of the major pluses Savages has going for it is that it’s unpredictable. O opens her narration with the line “just because I’m telling this story doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it.”. Despite the fact that Ben and Chon slowly gain the upper hand in their chess game of manipulation with Elena and her organization, it doesn’t mean their story will have a happy ending. Their love for O is their weakness and even though they begin making calculated moves against the cartel, they’re new to this unpredictable game. Though he may have headlined two recent major box-office disappointments, Kitch proves he’s still leading man material, excelling at playing characters who are rough around the edges. Johnson’s Ben is not only naïve, but must also learn the true meaning of getting one’s hands dirty even if it means that dirty is someone else’s blood. Sporting a beard and on one occasion, dreadlocks, the actor who has played the likes of a loser superhero wannabe and a young John Lennon, proves yet again what a versatile chameleon he is.
Lively’s O could have very well be dismissed as another damsel in distress, but the actress has the acting chops to hold her own with Del Toro and Hayek. Her scenes with the latter involving O’s unforeseeable growing connection with Elena are where both actresses excel. One may be playing the other, but it’s more likeable these are two individuals who have “bonded” because they are women forced to adapt after a life threatening turn of events for each of them. Though it initially appears that Del Toro has been awarded a minor character as basically Elena’s goon, Lado’s role in the story expands over the course of events. The character is a sadistic dog and though he commits terrible and brutal acts against others, Del Toro often appropriately carries them out for comedic effect. The actor no doubt jumped at the chance to not only work with Stone, but Travolta as the pair share one of the most humorous and memorable scenes in the picture. Both Lado and Dennis are survivors and represent cogs in the so-called well-oiled machines they work for.
At times Stone manages to make Savages an almost hallucinatory experience. The story unfolds in a leisurely manner, but it also seems to follow a plan as various crucial elements come into play or are revisited just when we’ve forgotten about them. He not only establishes tension at the right moments but often does so in a comedic fashion. Even though any one of the major characters here could end up dead at any moment it doesn’t mean shying away from those comedic ironies in life is necessary. It’s that loose nature of the story that makes it a good one and prevents it from feeling stale or boring.