Perhaps the most challenging thing about Oliver Stone’s new film Savages is that it is not very challenging. I’m a big fan of Stone’s work because he combines brilliant technical filmmaking with unapologetic argumentation. What he lacks in subtlety he makes up for in a really refreshing lack of subtlety. He believes in his beliefs, and he’s going to use every tool is his bag of moviemaking tricks to convince you that you should, too. Thankfully we don’t have to agree with every detail to enjoy ourselves.
We go to an Oliver Stone movie, not to agree, but to be fascinated by Stone’s arguments. We go to get mad at his exaggerations and embarrassed at his accuracies, to be shocked at his callousness and surprised at his sentimentality. But by the time we get to the end of Savages, Oliver Stone has stepped on all of his favorite land mines — sex, violence, drugs, and government — seemingly for no other reason than seeing them explode. There’s no lesson here, no passionate argument, no discernible perspective. People get high for various reasons, have sex for various reasons, and kill each other for various reasons. Some of those reasons involve drugs and money. It’s all pretty meaningless. Maybe that’s the lesson.
After six years of uncharacteristically tame PG-13 films, the extremely R-rated Savages has been touted as a return to form for the classically unrestrained director. In some ways it is, and it some ways it isn’t. Like much of Stone’s better work, Savages is set in a world of engrossing and normally inaccessible details. Stone has always been fascinated with the mechanics of complex social systems and with the people who participate in those systems. Just as Platoon, Wall Street, Nixon, and Any Given Sunday took us behind the curtains of the Vietnam War, the economy, the White House, and professional football, Savages takes brings inside the complicated world of legal drug sales and illegal drug trafficking.
Stone, as is his habit, uses a sizable cast to populate his story, filling out roles from one end of the drug spectrum to the other with a mixture of veteran and up-and-coming actors. Blake Lively plays O (short for Ophelia), a California beach girl in a consensual three-way romantic relationship with marijuana growers/business partners Ben and Chon (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch.) Ben is kind and cautious, Chon is strong and sullen; they sell high-grade pot over the counter and the under the table by day, while blissfully sharing the maternal care and vigorous carnality of O in their astonishing Los Angeles beach house at night. Alas, their immodest Eden is interrupted when Mexican drug cartel queen Elena (Selma Hayek) offers the boys a choice between selling out their business or having their heads removed with a chainsaw. While Ben and Chon naively plan a getaway to avoid the deal, Elena sends her brutal enforcer Lado (Benicio del Toro) to kidnap O and force the boys’ hands. Desperate, Ben and Chon seek the help of Dennis, a corrupt DEA agent played by John Travolta. The tangled series of negotiations and violent reprisals that ensue makes up the bulk of Savages’ running time.
If all of this sounds a little dark, well, it is. Very. This is a movie about good people doing bad things and bad people doing bad things. Savages earns its R-rating in the first ten minutes, and handily reinforces it for the remaining two hours. Torture, numerous sex scenes, drug use, rape, murder, you name it. Savages is a rough ride by any standard.
Which is not to say that it isn’t entertaining. For all its hollow sound and fury, Savages is often exciting, surprisingly funny, and pretty hard to stop watching. Oliver Stone has two Oscars for directing, and it’s as obvious here as in his others films that he knows his way around a camera. The action scenes crackle with intensity and color. The storytelling is smooth and brisk, winding throughout a maze of scrambled loyalties and crisscrossed motivations with ease and clarity. While the screenplay’s often overwrought dialogue and voiceover narration falls flat with the younger actors, the seasoned older cast members give a trio of mesmerizing performances, each finding a unique blend of flamboyance and humanity for his or her character. There are a sprinkling of scenes, many of them involving Del Toro, that contain dashes of disturbing insight. And you may or may not like the film’s ending(s), but you’ll definitely remember it.
But the problem with Savages isn’t the entertainment; it’s the emptiness. Looking through his filmography, one gets the sense that whenever Oliver Stone has something he really wants to talk about, he makes a movie. And yet, here is an Oliver Stone movie without a thesis. We know why Oliver Stone made JFK; we know why he made Born on the Fourth of July; we even know why he made World Trade Center. We have no idea why he made Savages. Certainly not to tell us how bad humans are or how human bad people are. Certainly not to argue for the legitimacy of unconventional relationships. Maybe we can stretch it to say that this is Stone’s argument for the legalization of drugs (i.e., none of this would have happened if drug enforcement laws didn’t force that creation of a violent undergrounred criminal economy), but that argument really is just that: a stretch. Sadly, I suspect Stone is may be going for something a little more existential and far less interesting: meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.
In the end, Savages is too much heat for too little light. It may be a return to form for Oliver Stone, but we want more than form from the passionate old director; we want function.