From the first time I saw the trailer for Savages there was only one point that confused me: “From Oliver Stone”. I’ll be the first to admit that not everything the man tries works, but Stone is not known for the sort of half-baked sex-and-violence-fest that the trailer promised; clearly there had to be something more to it. Well, having seen the film I can safely say that there isn’t. Badly written and half-badly acted, Stone’s visual compositions grab the eye, but ultimately to no coherent purpose.
The film is narrated by O — short for Ophelia (Blake Lively) — who tells us about Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who grow and distribute marijuana. Ben is the brains of the operation, having double-majored in business and botany at Berkeley, while Chon is the brawn, being an ex-Navy SEAL back from multiple tours of duty. And O lives with them in — brace yourself — a polyamorous relationship. Shocking, I know; or at least that’s what we’re obviously supposed to think.
Ben and Chon have drawn some unwelcome attention from the Baja cartel, run from Tijuana by Elena Sánchez (Salma Hayek). She deploys forces both legal — her lawyer, Alex (Demián Bichir) — and illegal — her enforcer, Lado (Benicio del Toro) — to compel Ben and Chon to join her organization. When they seem to resist, Elena has Ophelia kidnapped as leverage.
The writing is partly Stone’s, but he’s working with Shane Salerno of Armageddon and the remake of Shaft, and the script has every bit of the depth and subtlety of either of those movies. Stone usually selects political material, and I can only imagine that he saw this as an opportunity to make some sort of statement on the Mexican-American drug trade, along similar lines to Soderbergh’s Traffic or possibly Iñárritu’s Babel, a far superior film whose poster Savages blatantly rips off. But there’s nothing here beyond the observation that this is all a giant pointless mess, which nobody seriously disputes anymore anyway.
There are half-considered attempts at parallelism, with a mental-physical dyad on either side. They make sure to include lines where someone from each group calls the other one savage, though it’s clear that we’re supposed to think this applies less to the American war hero and the well-meaning white hippie kid than the brutal Mexicans who even kill each other for being too soft.
The irony here is that the “bad guys” are the only ones worth paying any attention to. Not only do Ben, Chon, and O together make a single family unit; Johnson, Kitsch, and Lively together make a single halfway decent actor. And only just, at that. Even John Travolta outshines them as a paid-off DEA agent.
But Hayek, Bichir, and Del Toro are each able to rise above their mediocre material with compelling performances. Hayek, in particular, manages to humanize and even feminize the role of a Mexican drug lord, while still maintaining a necessarily hard edge. Still, it would have been nice if there had been a point to her character.
The trailer and the movie both start with O explaining that “just because [she's] telling the story doesn’t mean [she's] alive at the end of it; it’s that kind of a story”. While the dying narrator has occasionally been pulled off as something other than a cheap stunt, announcing that it’s possible at the beginning is the cheapest, most cynical stunt of all, which just shows how contemptuous the writer is of the audience. More importantly, though: if you feel you have to tell us what kind of a story it is that you’re telling us, you’re no kind of a storyteller at all.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.