Written by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, and Oliver Stone;
Directed by Oliver Stone
By Ed Symkus
Here’s a big welcome back to the directing chair for Oliver Stone, who hasn’t made – for me – a really satisfying film since Any Given Sunday, back in 1999. Maybe it’s the subject matter this time, or the actors, or the combination of uncomfortable nastiness and some very dark humor.
Savages is a contemporary story, set in California, centering on the marijuana trade. Its two heroes (wait, maybe they’re antiheroes) are Ben and Chon (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch), who are longtime pals but have polar opposites when it comes to personalities.
Ben is a laidback, modern-day hippie who also happens to be a hell of a pot grower. Chon is hot-tempered and dangerous, and is said to have lost his soul during a couple of military tours in Iraq. But they’re friends and they’re in business together. They also both happen to love, or at least sleep with, the same woman, who goes by the name of O (Blake Lively), and serves as the film’s narrator.
It’s O who, offscreen, gives us the backgrounds of Ben and Chon, but reveals little of herself. It’s also O who introduces us to and warns us about Lado (Benicio Del Toro), a very bad guy who serves as a strong arm for a very bad drug organization known as the Baja Cartel, and to the even scarier Elena (Salma Hayek), who runs the cartel.
This is actually a business story. The once successful Baja Cartel is seeing some bad times due to the horrors running rampant through the Mexican pot industry. It’s Elena’s decision to latch onto the two Americans’ business, learn how they manage to grow and sell the best stuff around, then squeeze them out.
But, as we’ve all come to believe from the real-life news headlines that make it up north, everything revolves around threats of bloodshed. There’s plenty of that in the movie, right from the opening fames – an unnerving, jittery sequence made up of a bunch of scared-looking people and the sound on a chainsaw. Bad things are about to happen, but we’re not sure what. Before long, though, Ben and Chon and O know. They’re sent a video of that scene, and its outcome, and are told that a certain group of Mexican businessmen would like to meet with them.
There are fairly clean-cut lines drawn as far as which characters are good and which are not. But there’s also Dennis (John Travolta), a drug enforcement cop who’s taking money from Ben and Chon and in return let’s them do what they do. Is he good or bad? It’ll take you till the end of the film to decide, if you can even then.
Stone has always been good about creating intense moods, then sometimes letting things boil over, even explode. His fascinating but flawed Natural Born Killers took that to the extreme. He sure doesn’t hold back here. The intensity button that he regularly pushes often makes watching the film almost unbearable. Yet, as the plot gets complicated with deals and deceptions, and treachery is found to be lurking around every corner, you can’t take your eyes off of the screen, or keep your mouth from hanging open.
Everyone seems to be watching and/or listening to everybody else, on both sides. And things go beyond intense, reaching into areas of violence, bloodiness, viciousness. Backed up, you’ll recall, by that dark humor.
The best performance belongs to Aaron Johnson (Ben) who, for the third time in a row, totally fooled me. Meaning that I didn’t even know he was in Savages until the end credits, after seeing him as the young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, then not recognizing him when he played the lead in Kick-Ass, or in his supporting role as a cad in Albert Nobbs. The coolest part about his Ben in this one is that while watching the character develop, you wonder, worryingly, if he, too, like Chon, will lose his soul.