Savages, the new drug thriller directed by Oliver Stone, has been getting a bit of a bum rap. This hard-charging controversialist doesn’t always need to poke America’s soft spots; sometimes he just wants to have a good lowdown time, as he did in his freaky U-Turn fifteen years ago. Savages would make a fine double bill with U-Turn, up to the point where many viewers will bail — when Stone delivers a tragic ending, apparently along the lines of Don Winslow’s source novel, and then rescinds it. For me, though, the “happy ending” actually politicizes the movie more than a crime-does-not-pay finale would have. It also says a lot about the Hollywood system in which Stone is expected to work these days. If Universal nudged Stone’s hand here, are they aware they’ve given a happily-ever-after to drug dealers?
Those dealers are almost cartoonishly whitebread: Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who picked up some excellent seeds during his tours, and Ben (Aaron Johnson), a do-gooder with a minor in botany. They’re both in love with Ophelia (Blake Lively), or “O,” and the three of them run a highly prosperous weed business out of Laguna Beach and are happy as clams until a Mexican cartel wants in. Ben and Chon try to fake out the cartel and split for Indonesia, but the Mexicans kidnap O, and the plot thickens. The cartel’s scary enforcer is Lado (Benicio del Toro), who likes to strike terror with chainsaws and whips, but the true mastermind is Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek), who wears her hair in cruel black bangs. Even Lado is afraid of her. You might be, too. Stone has seldom known what to do with the women in his largely masculine films, but he gets a vivid, iconic portrait of corrupt humanity out of Hayek. After this and Frida, isn’t it time to admit that Hayek is one of our great actresses?
The story has many branches, including a dirty DEA agent (John Travolta), a perhaps too sensitive Mexican tasked to watch over O, and mostly faceless war buddies of Chon’s who always seem ready to drop everything and sit around in the desert for him with sniper rifles. Travolta is probably never better here than when Chon has just stabbed him in the hand and he seems less physically wounded than affronted in his soft spot, his dignity. Everyone here, indeed, has a soft spot, as Ben points out in one of his more lucid moments. Travolta’s other soft spot is his wife, expiring of cancer at home; he avails himself of some of Ben and Chon’s weed to make his wife’s chemo more bearable. This leads to Travolta’s other fine moment, when Ben asks how his wife is doing and Travolta says simply, “She’s dying,” and we’re reminded of the vulnerable actor who moved us in Blow Out and Saturday Night Fever.
Savages goes like a speedboat — its two hours and eleven minutes streak by. Stone shows a strong taste for brutality here; this is possibly his most splattery film since Natural Born Killers, and the presence of freshly chainsawed heads, skulls perforated in close-up, and the hard-to-watch fate of a man accused of being a DEA rat speaks volumes about how tolerant the MPAA is of violence these days. There’s also a good deal of sex (though no nudity from Blake Lively, much to her fans’ chagrin, no doubt) and, of course, near-constant drug use. Savages muscles its way into the heart of the hermetic superhero summer, sweating and cursing and bleeding and smoking and fucking. In its way, it’s a throwback to ’70s cinema, where nobody was all good or all bad, before George Lucas’ black-and-white chessboard design mapped itself over American entertainment.
This is by no means Oliver Stone’s best work — neither was U-Turn. But it’s his best work in well over a decade. He has a story here and he sticks to it, jazzing it up visually every so often, though never calling attention to his technique. He seems to be done with the Cuisinart style, as well as the Indian mystics who used to pop up in every Stone movie of the ’90s. If he has a muse this time, it’s Buddhist: Ben is a follower of the Dalai Lama’s teachings (up to a point), and O is referred to as a lotus. The comic tragedy of the movie is that nobody practices non-attachment, when they really should. Stone, a self-described Buddhist himself, makes movies that would horrify a monk but, in their rough fashion, stand as fairly memorable illustrations of the Four Noble Truths. Stone’s movies are full of what Buddhists call hungry ghosts, craving sensation and wealth, trying haplessly to fill a void in themselves. That double ending starts to make sense: it’s Stone saying “This is what could happen. And this is also what could happen. You have a choice.” The ghosts stop feeding and become people.