Reviews

'Savages': Middling and Sometimes Maddening

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.


Savages

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayak, Emile Hirsch, Demián Bichir
Rated: R
Studio: Universal Pictures
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-07-06 (General release)
UK date: 2012-09-12 (General release)
Website
Trailer

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.

6

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

9
Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.