THE Screened Review by Matthew Marko
As sun-baked and drug-fuelled a noir as you’ll ever find, Savages is a glorious mess of gritty violence, moral decay, and near-camp social commentary. It’s not perfect and barely sane, but it cuts a swath across its many targets with a confidence director Oliver Stone hasn’t shown in some time.
Calling an Oliver Stone movie good or bad always seems like missing the point these days. The director has made a career off of movies so varied and so aggressive in their attempts at lurid drama or outright social commentary that when they’re bad they’re indulgent messes and when they’re good they’re still indulgent messes, but one finds oneself playing along anyway. It’s the sign of a strong voice, at least, that they are so consistently ridiculous, even if the quality can swing wildly along a fairly subjective scale. And as a fan of strong authorial voice, I appreciate even the misfires as just part of the package.
So explaining why I think Savages is good is difficult, because the things that make it good would also make other movies bad. It walks a fine line that careens over the abyss of truly terrible before planting its feet and landing in good territory. But it does so on its own terms, and they’re clearly take it or leave it.
A wild modern noir epic based on a book by co-screenwriter Don Winslow, Savages opens with narration from a woman named O, short for Ophelia, played by Blake Lively. She’s in love with two men, Chon (Taylor Kitsch), an ex-Navy SEAL and his friend and business partner Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Berkeley graduate. The two men share everything, including O’s affections, and both of them have created a highly lucrative business: cultivating a new strain of marijuana that Chon brought back from Afghanistan. As the movie opens, they’re living the dream, rich and successful and with a rapidly expanding enterprise that minds its own business and does plenty of good selling to the legal pot sellers all across California.
Unfortunately, they’re growing fish in a diminishing pond, and they’ve gotten the attention of the Mexican cartels, specifically a particularly nasty one that’s moving up to America to dodge political pressure down south. Elena, the head of the cartel (Salma Hayek), isn’t about to take no for an answer, even if Chon and Ben are ready to cut their losses and walk from the whole business. She needs them and their connections, and when they try to back away she kidnaps O in order to force them to play along with her operations. But Chon is a fighter who sees that act as a declaration of war, and things spiral out of control from there.
The movie is one of the sprawling crime dramas that used to be associated with Elmore Leonard and smarly updated by Winslow’s script, a sort of sun-drenched, no holds barred look at aspiration and crime and the rapid loss of morality in even the more chill parts of America. Its violence is sudden and swift, with plenty of death and much of it unflinching. The script itself could be set in any time and any place and come out largely intact, a testament to Winslow’s capacity to write good nuanced noir, but it never feels irrelevant. It earns its hard R through old fashioned shock and hard work, establishing itself as a nearly nihilistic take on drugs and business, a series of well-worn noir tropes shoved into the modern era. The armed gangsters in hats and coats of the 40s have become the tattooed, muscled bros of today, both home from a war they never really got away from and with a capacity to kill they don’t know how to apply. The drugs and backstabbing is more eternal, but it’s all taken a spin for the ridiculous with the never ending ‘war’ on drugs, embodied in a DEA agent played by John Travolta who knows everyone and is as shady as the rest, just safe behind his badge and too cowardly to make a move.
Married to Oliver Stone’s direction, it becomes a heady, feverish spin on the conventions. The movie opens with a barrage of film stock, black and white, handheld, overexposed, even some consumer-grade internet-quality video, cut within an inch of its life and reassembled into something that represents a music video sensibility from last decade, which fits with the weirdly not-quite-antiquated statements on drugs and society that Stone pulls out of mothballs and dangles in the quieter moments. The absurdities extend to the score, too, which veers from appropriate latin music to classical scores to a frequent cartoon jingle used to notify Chon and Ben that Elena has come calling. It’s a tonal tornado that shoves the film deeply out of the realm of the real and into Stone’s strange affected world where anything can happen because nothing bears more than passing resemblance to reality. This is the opposite of a low-key crime procedural—this is a criminal fairy tale, and every step it takes it goes further towards extremes of violence or hard-boiled twists and turns or even outright tongue-in-cheek humor.
And that’s the real key here. The movie moves at an incredible pace (especially considering its 127 minute runtime) but always takes the time to stop and let the older actors chew scenery, tilting the whole movie towards a knowing joke on these types of films. Whether it’s Hayek’s ruthless but casually motherly drug lord, or Travolta’s corrupt huckster of a cop, or the big heavy enforcer, played with a glaring, smouldering menace by a happilly hammy Benicio Del Toro. The movie works best when the earnest leads are getting mowed down by the eccentric backup players, and the movie feels like it’s juggling conflicting emotions with an aplomb that shouldn’t be possible. It simply doesn’t feel safe, and that’s perhaps the highest compliment I can pay to this kind of story. Anything could happen and the whole mess feels like it could fall apart at any moment.
Which is exactly why I like it. This is one of those big, bold genre statements, a more aggressive version of Jackie Brown or Get Shorty, a kind of exhaustive slice-of-crime epic that only comes around once in a great while probably because they entail so many risks. And given Stone’s predilections for ridiculous excess, I can’t help but imagine that as many people will find it offputting as find it entrancing. It’s one of those big beautiful trainwrecks of a movie, chaos that works almost by magic. I find that hypnotic, and noir in desperate short supply, and thus I fell for Savages’ strange, indulgent charms. If that sounds like the fun side of a bad trip, then you’ll probably feel likewise.