Middling and Sometimes Maddening

by Chris Barsanti

6 July 2012

Given Oliver Stone’s professional but hardly satisfying efforts of late, it's good to see him turn out a movie with some stylistic verve and brief glimpses of his circa-'90s pulpy weirdness.

There Are Other Ways to Make Money

cover art


Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayak, Emile Hirsch, Demián Bichir

(Universal Pictures)
US theatrical: 6 Jul 2012 (General release)
UK theatrical: 12 Sep 2012 (General release)

Still drifting in a haze of pot smoke and post-coital splendor, O (Blake Lively) wanders over to wrap herself around her musclebound lover Chon (Taylor Kitsch), but draws herself up when she sees what he’s looking at on the computer screen. Grimy digital video shows booted men kicking about severed heads on a bloody concrete floor. The scene draws her up short. “Is that Iraq?” O asks Chon, who served tours there and in Afghanistan. “No,” he answers. “Mexico.”

With that exchange, Oliver Stone’s Savages sets up some fascinating possibilities, few of which it fulfills. Set mostly in an idyllic swath of California beach paradise, the film follows the fortunes of a pot operation, owned by Chon and his best friend Ben (Aaron Johnson). Tightly run and immensely profitable, the business gets in the way of a rapidly expanding Baja cartel, which initiates a predictable fight over turf and reputation. Savages might have been a story of innocence lost, the corrosiveness of drug money, the endlessly looping violence of wars abroad and wars at home. Instead, what we got is a lurid revenge melodrama in which killers indulge in bloody excess and everybody does the best they can with some of the year’s worst dialogue.

Consider the lines assigned to O, who narrates: “I had orgasms,”” she says of Chon, “He had wargasms.” Or again, “Ben’s guiding philosophy is basically Buddhist… Chon’s philosophy is basically baddest.” Maybe it’s not her fault. Her real name is Ophelia, she tells us, given her by a never-present, many-times-married mother of absurd wealth who left her daughter with an aversion to responsibility. O beds both men and announces early on, “Just ‘cause I’m telling this story doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it,” one of many ways the script—adapted by Stone, Shane Salerno, and Don Winslow from Winslow’s novel—pretends to be clever.

Another way involves the threesome of lovers, or more precisely, the “sharing” of O. She describes the boys as opposites in every way (“Chon is cold metal, Ben is warm wood”), and then insists that together, they’re one perfect man. Ben’s double major from Berkeley in business and botany gave him the skills to engineer, grow, and sell the best pot in the world. Chon provides a couple of very simple things: seeds from Afghanistan and some very determined military muscle, for those rare occasions when someone needs to be persuaded to cooperate.

Since things are going so well that the boys don’t feel like selling out and working for the Baja cartel, who solicits them with that video showing the seven severed heads. In order to make them comply, the cartel’s head, Elena (Salma Hayek), has O kidnapped, then says she’ll hold her for a year, just to make sure Ben and Chon do what she says. At first eager to go along, the boys soon realize that this deal is likely insincere, and so enlist Chon’s ex Navy SEAL buddies, who don’t appear to have day jobs or any difficulty acquiring RPGs, IEDs or military-grade sniper rifles.

Their decision to embark on this course is strongly discouraged by the DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) on their payroll, a squirmy weasel whose off-screen wife is dying of cancer and who also gets many of the film’s biggest laughs. He knows firsthand Elena’s ruthlessness, and that of her team, especially the butcher in charge of O’s captivity, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), who leads a team of killers who pose as gardeners in order to gain access to a victim’s home. The noise their mowers make outside while Lado exacts bloody payment is matched by the hysteria performed by Hayek, at once medieval and modern, anxiously calling her estranged daughter (Sandra Echeverría) to make sure she’s studying for her final exams. Elena shares a marvelously odd dinner scene with O as some grandly campy off-off-Broadway Lady Macbeth, sawing her meat apart with sharp white teeth while flipping between matronly affection and pitiless terrorism.

For all the scenery chewing, there are more opportunities missed here than taken. Though Stone has reported doing considerable research, outside of an early montage, the movie reveals very little of the Southern California pot scene or the extensive reach of the cartels. The captive videos of O that Lado sends to her men aren’t used for anything more than Saw-style titillation. (Despite her Shakespearean name, O is so relentlessly objectified in the film she might as well have been for Pauline Reage’s The Story of O.)

This isn’t to say that Savages offers nothing of worth. It’s Stone’s most entertaining and surprising movie in years. It offers hints, especially in the earlier stretches, of the collision between dreamy Western naiveté and third world realities that made Alex Garland’s novel The Beach so darkly engaging. More effectively, as Chon and Ben ramp up their war against the cartel in a blindly heroic bid to get their girl back, the plot turns over a lot of rocks—considering both the rush and the horror of violence, as well as the ways people consume it—and in so doing, it doesn’t make its destination overly obvious.

Given Stone’s professional but hardly satisfying efforts of late, like W. and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, it’s good to see him turn out a movie with some stylistic verve and even brief glimpses of his circa-‘90s pulpy weirdness. That said, Savages remains a middling and sometimes maddening film.



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