The central metaphor behind Savages‘ title doesn’t play at being elusive; its dual meanings are front and center in the first act. In the conflict between independent marijuana growers Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), and the ruthless Baja Cartel, both sides see one another as– surprise of surprises– savages, and the longer their turf war plays out the less they hesitate to assume that role. But Oliver Stone, behind the lens and more in charge than he’s been since the turn of the century, doesn’t really care about playing coy with his film’s moniker. In his hands, Savages is a blunt force instrument, a pulpy, violent, cynical, and blackly funny bit of cultural critique with little interest in thematic nuance.
Put simply, Savages wants you to know you’re watching it. You may be disturbed by the brutality on display, and you may end up chuckling at the quirks and tics of the characters perpetrating it; subsequently, you may be somewhat disgusted with yourself. And Stone. As gruesome as Savages gets, though, Stone’s only feigning playing the provocateur. Much of the film’s most graphic content simply dovetails the sort of rank barbarism found in journalistic accounts of Mexican drug cartel activity (and some of which you might recognize if you’re a fan of, say, The Shield); Stone may be exploiting it, but he can still claim little among the methods of violence employed here as his own inventions.
In fact, that’s how Savages begins, contrasting the ugliness of the Baja Cartel’s business methods with the Earth child sensibilities of Ben and Chon. Ben, a business savvy botanist, wants to sell drugs in the most non-confrontational way possible, making it a policy to not screw around with people who could lead him to harm. Chon, an ex-Navy Seal, mostly follows Ben’s example, but even a granola-mongering peacenik needs muscle in the drug business, especially when big time dope peddlers blatantly threaten you with decapitation. Enter the Baja Cartel, led by Elena (Salma Hayek), who want Ben– apparently a THC wunderkind– to divulge the secrets of his growing method. Like the film itself, Elena’s crew applies all the subtlety of a fifty-pound sledgehammer; work with us or we’ll butcher you like cattle. Except that he doesn’t, and they don’t, which just makes the Baja look wishy washy.
Until they shanghai O (Blake Lively, the most woefully misnamed actress on the planet), Ben’s and Chon’s girlfriend (yes, it’s like that), and promise mutilation and slow death if Ben fails to deliver. Which is where Savages really picks up, as the two young men won’t take their lover’s abduction, coupled with the threat to their own livelihood, lying down. Admittedly, Lively– serving as both a damsel in distress and a narrator who isn’t unreliable as much as she is stupid– weighs things down somewhat, but she can also neither help the fact that O is written terribly nor be held accountable for the sheer volume of narration. Frankly, O just isn’t all that important; she’s mostly required to be pretty and act numb with fear.
In other words, she barely registers. Maybe this undermines the campaign of vengeful subterfuge waged by the men of her life, but it also lessens the effects of her non-acting– and besides, Stone still has a flair for stylized graphic violence. If the love triangle between Johnson, Kitsch, and Lively lacks an essential compelling element, Stone knows how to make the gritty bloodshed sparked by her kidnapping really pop (and, to be fair, Johnson and Kitsch sell their anguish over O’s hostage status effectively well). Ultimately, that’s why we watch movies like Savages in the first place; everything else can just be seen as window dressing. Stating the obvious, don’t tune into Savages for its central romantic relationship; tune in for its escalating depictions of impassioned cruelty.
And for the scenery chewing. There’s some highly entertaining major teeth-gnashing going on amongst Savages heavy hitters, and all of it’s a sight to behold. Hayek walks off with high honors here, amusingly playing one part super-mom and one part merciless drug baroness, and Travolta’s having more fun than he’s had in ages playing a corrupt DEA agent. But it’s Benicio del Toro– playing Lado, Hayek’s enforcer– who takes the top prize here. Elena might be guiding the business, but it’s Lado who gets his hands dirty murdering people and chopping their bodies up for easy disposal. Del Toro’s the sort of actor who can convey multitudes with nothing more than a sideways glance, and while Savages isn’t prime thespian product, he attacks the role with relish and smug, amoral glee nonetheless.
He’s not the only one wolfishly grinning at the material, either. Stone feels more like himself here than he has in more than a decade; maybe for that alone, Savages should be seen, though with foreknowledge that it’s still only minor Stone. Regardless, he approaches the film with tongue firmly in cheek. The surface of Savages might be all sex, drugs, and violence– with a smattering of familial static and hippie idealism– but mockingly satirical subtext riddles every single scene. In point of fact, the entire movie is all about apprehending Ben’s belief structure and tainting it. Maybe another director would see that as tragic. Stone sees that corruption as a punchline.
That’s Savages‘ unseen appeal, and easily its most recommendable element, but none of this is to say it’s perfect. The film only recalls vintage Stone– in very real, palatable ways, certainly, but not so much that it can be called a return to form. There’s a pervasive sense of hesitation here, nothing loud enough to be distracting but absolutely noticeable in the way the film occasionally shies away from really impacting, harrowing violence. It’s that indecision that proves to be the movie’s downfall in the last five minutes, and I imagine that the apologetic, wavering nature of the climax might be enough for some to relegate Savages to the trash barrel*. But if Stone can’t stick the landing, he certainly knows how to make the rest of the ride enjoyably, farcically gristly.
*Though as bad as it is, it’s also arguably respectably cynical on a number of levels.