* * * 1/2
Oliver Stone’s Savages is being hailed as a return to form for the maverick filmmaker, and in telling the luridly fascinating tale of two Southern California pot dealers ensnared in a vicious Mexican cartel, he pulls out all the stops—beheadings, torture, steamy sex, dirty double-crosses, small-time criminals and big-time killers, kidnappings, eyes for eyes, PTSD and more—and creates a riveting movie experience.
In a picture that might best be described as a cranked-up, hallucinatory fever dream, Stone is back to his trademark, hyper-stylized aesthetic—meaning a mixture of film stocks, black and white and color, shifting time structures, overheated cinematography—in adapting Don Winslow’s 2010 novel Savages. He is also back to territory he so memorably explored in his screenplays for Midnight Express and Scarface, the drug war and all of its byzantine entanglements. While I’m not sure the film says volumes on the subject of the human cost of the drug trade, it is an undeniably entertaining ride that keeps us in its clutches right up to its surprising final scenes.
Screenwriters Shane Salerno, Don Winslow and Stone himself frame Savages as a fractured, Southern Californian fairy tale and narrated by Blake Lively, who stars as O (for Ophelia), one-third of a ménage set on Laguna Beach that also includes best friends Chon (Aaron Johnson) and Ben (Taylor Kitsch), in the throes of a stoner buddy bromance—both sleep with O and then later, the three of them together. Chon and Ben are also the biggest marijuana dealers in California, and from their cozy beach house have a lucrative operation.
Chon, the more socially conscious of the two, is a botanist who believes in some utopian ideal of social service driven by the profits from their business, while Ben is a damaged soul, a former Iraq vet with PSTD who brought product back from the Middle East, engineered by Ben to be the best pot in the world.
In the film’s opening stretches, business booms while the pair shares O in an open relationship full of sex and passion and heat. All seem content with the arrangement, especially O, a little rich girl alienated from her mother and self-described pothead “since eighth grade,” a willowy free spirit about to come into some very bad luck after the boys receive a email message from Mexico featuring video footage of scores of beheaded men.
Enter Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek, relishing every line), the queenpin of a Mexican drug cartel she runs from her Tijuana mansion, who wants to expand her business into the U.S. with the help of her sleazy right-hand man, Lado (Benico del Toro, in full quirk mode). To convince the two young men to join her (read: hand over their business), she dispatches an armada that includes Alex (A Better Life’s Demian Bichir), who makes an offer they naively refuse, against the advice of a corrupt DEA agent (John Travolta) who advises them that joining Elena’s operation will simply be like “having an aisle at Wal-mart.”
Needless to say, their refusal of Elena’s offer doesn’t go over well, and the film sets up an in-over-their-heads scenario where small time and big-time collide when Elena, as a coercion tactic, kidnaps O. The deal—Elena will hold their princess for one year while the guys get a ransom paid and their cash flowing south of the border.
Meanwhile, under Lado’s watch, O and Elena begin to bond, and we learn that Elena has an Americanized daughter of similar age, Magda (Sandra Echevarria), living in Southern California. There’s a lot more plot involved, including massive sums of money being moved and stolen, ransoms being upped, Desert Storm tactics employed on rival caravans and a rising Mexican kingpin named El Azul (Joaquin Cosio) breathing down Elena’s neck. But the stakes go sky high when Chon and Ben eventually kidnap Magda and propose an exchange. Elena comes unglued and Hayek, in full vamp mode, goes for broke
How Stone resolves this in the final scenes, after taking us down a very bloody road and then employing a reversal, feels like welcome wish fulfillment after all the mayhem.
It is tremendously fun to watch each of the characters in Savages go over the brink of insanity, getting sucked further into the darkness of this world, especially a very funny Travolta as the middle-aged agent playing both sides. In a terrific scene, Lado confronts him in the middle of his quiet family home, and even we are unsure where his loyalties lie. The actor, who usually plays nice guys, seems liberated by the criminal duplicities of the role.
Hayek, as the spidery femme fatale perfectly coiffed in designer duds and silky mane (which we learn in a wig in a moment of fabulous melodrama), hasn’t had a role this good since maybe ever, her closest being her Oscar-nominated turn in Julie Taymor’s 2002 Frida. She is slick, sexy and smart, slinking around with composure while ordering her henchmen to nefarious ends. And at the end of it all, she is simply a compassionate mother who wants the best for her daughter. It is a flamboyant, gritty performance and deserves to be remembered come awards season.
If there is a weak link to the film, it’s that the younger stars aren’t quite up to the level of the pros. While Lively is perfectly adequate and watchable, there is something lacking in the teaming of Johnson and Kitsch, perhaps because they are the straight men to all the craziness, but both seem somewhat out of their depth (though Johnson has proven adept in other pictures). One wonders what, say, Andrew Garfield, Ryan Gosling or even Tom Hardy might have done with these roles.
Savages is feverish, energetic and hooks us scene after scene. I didn’t want it to end.
Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Oliver Stone.Written by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow and Stone, based on the novel by Winslow.
Chon – Taylor Kitsch
O – Blake Lively
Ben Aaron Johnson
Dennis – John Travolta
Lado – Benicio Del Toro
Elena – Salma Hayek