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

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image