By Bryan Nixon.
Oliver Stone, the 80’s and 90’s king of aggressively provocative and political American filmmaking (Platoon, Natural Born Killers, JFK), has been directing lackluster films with monstrous ambition over the last decade (Alexander, Wall Street 2, W.). The problem is that he has become regrettably soft in his exploits, which are often sidetracked by dominant romance subplots and safe politics. His early films are phenomenal because they are unapologetic and prescribe to insanity. For example, Platoon is exceptional because some find it anti-America because of the negative portrayal of Vietnam veterans, some find it remarkable because they see it as a radical protest for peace, and Stone sees it as an honest and scathing portrait of his experience in Vietnam. His latest, Savages, is a return-to-form film that is crippled by reckless casting and an illogical screenplay. The politics are present, but the strive is lacking. Nevertheless, it is Stone’s finest work in years, but that is not necessarily to be taken as a compliment.
Oliver Stone made the cover of July’s issue of “High Times Magazine,” pictured smoking a blunt, because Savages is a film that makes the case for the legalization of marijuana in the United States of America. Two peaceful and highly successful pot-growers, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), and their shared girlfriend O (Blake Lively) are sucked into a violent underworld where an elite Mexican cartel is lopping heads. O is kidnapped by Lado (Benicio Del Toro) as a means to force Ben and Chon to cooperate under a three-year contract detailing a merger between their business and empress Elena’s (Salma Hayek) Mexican drug-running organization. The peaceful Ben and Chon eventually become as violent as the cartel they despise in attempt to rescue O. Lurking in the background is DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) playing every side of the fence possible and collecting from everyone. Elena’s cartel exists because marijuana is a highly profitable illegal enterprise. Oliver Stone claims that peaceful potheads are made criminals because of the U.S.’s war on drugs. And, for that reason, if marijuana were legalized in the U.S., there would be less violence, crime, and corruption.
The film’s greatest moments arrive when Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta take charge. Their characters are enthralling and skillfully exaggerated. Lado is a curious figure, a wise assassin and cartel general who enjoys torturing and seeing his victims writhe. Del Toro plays Lado in such an animated way that he feels like a character who belongs in the Natural Born Killers universe. Dennis can be regarded in a similar fashion. Travolta is witty and raging, a fast-talking overseer of political corruption and personal gain. He delivers the film’s best line, “You stabbed a federal agent!” in a logically psychotic demeanor; his first thought when stabbed is to blackmail the culprit with his authority. One does not easily get away with attacking the government, especially if that government has been protecting their illegal actions. His final scenes are played with extreme panic and pride so audiences can see just how evil and manipulative he is. Conversely, the weakest moments follow the three lead roles. Lively, Kitsch, and Johnson give performances that are completely unlike Travolta’s and Del Toro’s in that they are flat, un-exaggerated, and without emotion. I was unable to become interested in their love triangle because there was no depth or conflict to it; they simply all love one another equally and their fight is uninspired because there is no passion or emotional boundaries. O just wants to go to the mall and have sex with both Ben and Chon. Ben and Chon just want to grow and sell the world’s finest marijuana and have sex with O. They are one-note characters portrayed lifelessly by these deadpan actors. When Ben and Chon finally start killing and stealing, they do not convince. The actors take the scenes too seriously, as if they are disconnected from the events occurring around them, and are unable to have fun with the audience. After she has been held hostage for a few days, O asks if she can have salad instead of pizza. I assume this was intended to serve as a joke towards her entitled American attitude and lifestyle, Lively, however, delivers the joke as if it were to be taken sincerely. Ben, Chon, and O would not fit in Natural Born Killers. Stone’s goal was to show that the hippies are unlike the cartel in a moral sense, but the differences in the performances detract this perspective.
Savages ends on the right note, but the film reached its destination the wrong way. Stone provides a fake ending before he rewinds to reveal the real ending, which is nothing more than an excuse to include more violence in a movie that needed more violence to propel the thrills. I find it problematic that Stone must rely on carnage. Unfortunately, he does it so well. The most memorable, visually striking, and politically charged sequences overflow with bloodshed because they enforce Stone’s stance. As I mentioned earlier, Stone has once again been sidetracked by a thin romance plot that engulfs too much of the film.
While watching Savages, I was constantly reminded of my favorite Oliver Stone film Natural Born Killers. That film works well because it is passionate; the lovers live, kill, and die for one another, the supporting roles are riotous caricatures, the cinematography by Robert Richardson is the work of a maniac, the editing is ferocious, and Stone hammers the audience into submission with his attack on American media and culture through continuous sadistic outbursts. Savages lacks passion in its screenplay and its central performances, and consequently reads as a squandered opportunity. Daniel Mindel’s beautiful cinematography reminded me of his extraordinary experimental work on Tony Scott’s Domino, which recalls Natural Born Killers. The images are ripe with infinite colors and the black-and-white sequences ooze fantastical sexuality and mystery. Visually, Savages is masterful filmmaking. However, the foundation of the screenplay needed to enrage audiences; instead, it will most likely disinterest them. It would work if Don and Ben could wink at the audience in the way that Lado and Dennis do. Oliver Stone made the wrong film.
Bryan Nixon is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Director Oliver Stone
Screenplay by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, & Oliver Stone
Original Novel by Don Winslow
Producers Moritz Borman & Eric Kopeloff
Director of Photography Daniel Mindel
Editors Joe Hutshing, Stuart Levy, & Alex Marquez
With Blake Lively (O), Taylor Kitsch (Chon), Aaron Johnson (Ben), Benicio Del Toro (Lado), John Travolta (Dennis), Salma Hayek (Elena), Emile Hirsch (Spin)