As Oliver Stone ages, he’s almost turned into a caricature of himself. He used to be among the most energetic, exciting filmmakers of the late eighties and early nineties. But sometime after the release of Nixon, Stone decided to “mellow out” and his politically charged examinations of society were “destroying our buzz.” Can anyone name a decent film he has made in the last seventeen years?
I am glad that Stone has returned to his roots in making a violent, socially conscious film about drugs. But even Savages takes a lot of risks for a Stone film. He is used to telling his audiences what to think and what they should take away. Savages leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and puts interpretation right where it should be; with the audience. Savages is a smart, well made film that is actually refreshing to see in wide release.
Savages is about the marijuana trade, and how the drug war still leads to unnecessary violence and death. More specifically, two California friends named Ben (Aaron Johnson) and war veteran Chon (Taylor Kitsch). They live with Ophelia, or “O” (Blake Lively), who is in love with both of them. Their crop is considered amongst the best in the world, and attracts the attention of Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek) head of a dangerous Mexican cartel. Ben does not want to do business with her, so she has the maniacal Lado (Benicio del Toro) to kidnap Ophelia. The two turn into the hideously violent maniacs that they did not wish to become so that they may get “O” back.
I have not read the source novel, so I am not sure whether or not the already scorned narration (which includes the word war-gasm) or ending were in the original work. But I did not find those as jarring as other critics dd; at least, those critics who only observed those elements and nothing else. Simply put, these characters are smart but rather limited in the way they perceive things. Ben is a man who wants to try to do good for the world, whatever that may be, and Chon only sees violence. “O” sees herself playing the spoiled rich girl. Even the mawkish happy ending makes sense from this limited view. Is the ending of Taxi Driver bad because it is too happy?
I mentioned these upfront because this is what everyone is mentioning. To me, this is unfair. It is the film’s structure about two characters going to the violent hell they thought they could avoid. Ben, as said, wanted to help third world countries. Chon was looking for therapy from the war. Of course, by the end, both have killed people and tortured others. And, at least, this transformation is not done overnight, like a terrible action film would. He is just as traumatized by what he has to do as the victims are. Granted, it’s not subtle (it is illustrated by Ben vomiting on the side of the road) but it’s addressed. Even Elena is a victim. Hayek gives the film’s best performance, because she actually embodies the sadness that Johnson and Kitsch admittedly never quite nail. Beneath her cold exterior is a woman who wants her daughter to love her, and who has lost other children. Everyone in this business is operating on autopilot, and the actors demonstrate that by playing their characters as detached from the world.
So, at this point, the only theme I have addressed is about how violence is bad. But that is not the only thing that the film has to say. Stone’s career has been built on telling audiences what to think. With Savages, he actually (gasps) expects audiences to come away with their own interpretation. Who’s fault is it? Well, the DEA in the film admits that marijuana will be legal in a few years. So why continue to perpetuate this cycle? And what about the medical dispensary that Ben and Chon run? Or Ben’s humanitarian causes? Why should those be treated as harmful to society? The film left me with more questions than I had before I viewed Savages, which is unheard of in a Stone film.
Do not be afraid to go see Savages, even if everyone else wants to see Spiderman. Savages is the sort of film that would have turned heads back in the day. As it stands, it is a reminder of the great things Stone can accomplish. The fact it is passing by so many people’s radars is concerning on many different levels. Maybe the fact that we do not flinch at images of people being graphically decapitated with a chainsaw says a lot more about us than we would care to know.