Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Savages Movie Review

Oliver Stone returns to fine form with his latest example of pushing violence to excess in cinema with Savages, the film that Natural Born Killers might have been with a little restraint. Stone exhibits more control of a story that could very easily have run away from itself and of the violence depicted in it.

Savages tells the story of three lovers, but it’s not a love triangle. Ben and Chon are very successful marijuana growers in southern California. Ophelia, commonly known as O, is their muse and lover. After they reject an offer from a powerful Mexican cartel, O is kidnapped as collateral for their future acceptance of terms. You see, they grow a product with ten times the THC levels of anything else on the market and the Mexican cartel, struggling in a poor economy like everyone else, wants a piece. Lots of stories ask what lengths one person would go to in order to save someone they love. Stone, never eager to shy away from extremes, looks at what two men would do to save the woman they love equally.

For Ophelia, Stone cast Blake Lively, the beautiful and talented young actress who received good notices for Ben Affleck’s The Town in 2010. She’s convincing both when O is in love and when she’s in mortal danger. I am, however, baffled by the choice to give her a Southern or Midwest drawl complete with conspicuously dropped g’s. Her character otherwise screams Southern California girl. O describes her two lovers as two parts of the perfect man. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is animalistic and rough. He’s all brute masculinity. Ben (Aaron Johnson) is soft, tender, Buddhist.

What impressed me most is that the film exceeds expectations in almost every area. To watch the trailer had me thinking of generic dialogue, predictable plot developments, and bad acting. As a director, Stone still has some new tricks up his sleeve. It reminded me most of Any Given Sunday, one of my favorite Stone films, because of its unrelenting visceral impact. Stone also continues to reveal himself to be heavily informed and influenced by his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. Three of his movies are explicitly about that conflict while many others have an implied connection.

Any Given Sunday had football as metaphor for men going into battle and fighting side-by-side. Savages uses Chon as a representation of how war can take a man’s soul. A two tour veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, O explains that Chon is trying to f--- the war out of himself and in one of the script’s worse moments she tells us she “has orgasms and Chon has wargasms.” Chon is already past a point of no return. He’s seen and done things that most people can barely imagine. Stone, of course, has been there. Ben is the heart of the movie. He says he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get O back. But what the heart wants and what the body and mind can handle are not always the same. Savages is truly Ben’s journey from hippie dope-smoking peacenik to carnage-hungry revenge seeker. In the wrong hands, the treatment could have been all wrong. But Stone, Shane Salerno and Don Winslow (who also wrote the novel on which it’s based) keep tight control, although I think the inclusion of a voiceover narration by O reveals a lack of confidence in their storytelling abilities. I believed it when she proclaimed at the beginning that just because she’s telling the story doesn’t mean she’s alive at the end. I just don’t think it was necessary.

The supporting roles are nicely filled out by several fantastic actors. Salma Hayek is the Mexican cartel boss. She can be maternal and viciously unforgiving in the same scene. John Travolta is a crooked DEA agent on the take from Ben and Chon; Benicio del Toro is a terrifying enforcer for the Mexican cartel; and Demián Bichir, phenomenal in last year’s A Better Life, is the cartel’s business face and lawyer.

It’s unusual for Stone to let go of his liberal political leanings. You can find his fingerprints if you dig deep enough. Can we say, for example, that Savages is a subtle indictment of the policies of the Bush administration? Perhaps in Chon, a man broken by two wars that many in Stone’s political corner think were a waste of resources. There are also scenes of torture in which a man confesses to a transgression he didn’t commit in order to spare his family. Hayek’s character even points out that torture induces false confessions. I don’t know if these scenes were in Winslow’s book, but Stone certainly gives it enough prominence that it may just be his way of trying to steer us back in the right direction as a country.

But then again Savages doesn’t come packaged in such moral clarity. Ben and Chon already have their hands dirty from the beginning and their actions throughout the film soil them even more. When is it okay to steal, torture, maim and kill? Under what circumstances can we consider it part of the greater good or an act of self-defense?

I can’t recall a Stone movie I have so thoroughly enjoyed from end-to-end. Any Given Sunday loses some points for being too long. It is quite simply a wild and exuberant ride through the streets of hell. He pulls the rug out from under you more than a couple of times and even provides an ending that has the potential to make several different types of audience members happy all at once.

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