O (Blake Lively) is a sun-kissed California beach bunny sharing an unconventional romance with two best friends: former Navy SEAL Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and idealistic entrepreneur Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Their idyllic Laguna Beach lifestyle is funded by their homegrown business producing the best weed in the state, profits from big-hearted Ben also funnels into helping impoverished orphans in the Third World. Unfortunately their success attracts the attention of ruthless Mexican cartel baroness, Elena (Salma Hayek). She has O abducted by her monstrous enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), aiming to coerce Ben and Chon into handing over their business, but instead drives the duo to desperate measures.
Oliver Stone’s latest was largely castigated by critics mistakenly expecting a corruscating analysis of America’s war on the drugs trade. In reality, Savages runs closer to an experimental exploitation film, albeit at times an overcooked one. Much like the underrated U Turn (1998), the film finds Stone at his most playful, stirring his expected polemical rhetoric into a wayward plot by turns satirical, visceral and oddly elegaic. While more than a few critics were turned off by the Zen surfer philosophy and neo-hippie idealism espoused by its central characters, and encapsulated in O’s dreamy narration, but Stone really nails the vibe of the area which proves a crucial facet of the film’s agenda. The drugs trade and brutality of the Mexican cartels prove simply the backdrop for an allegorical tale of lost innocence and naivety unmasked. The film takes its characters on a journey from heaven to hell, challenging their preconceived ideas about love, relationships, morality and most importantly the reality of the business in which they are enmeshed. While Ben believes their pot profits can be put to altruistic use and O believes her bond with both men is a sincere form of love, their nightmarish experience at the hands of more amoral characters cause them to wonder if they are kidding themselves.
Working in collaboration with source author Don Winslow - who spent six years researching the cartels and Drug Enforcement Agency for an earlier book, “The Power of the Dog” - enabled Stone to strike a note of authenticity around the various cartel power plays and negotiations featured herein. Examining the drugs trade in wryly economic terms, the film basically outlines a clash between idealistic independant entrepreneurs and ruthlessly business-minded cartels, which the script amusingly likens to a clash between smallholders and WalMart. The film dawdles too long before getting to the setup with plot elements that seem to have strayed out of a Latin telenovella. Nevertheless, once things kick into gear, Stone steers the film down an intriguingly serpentine path from suspenseful to darkly comic. Especially interesting is the unexpected dynamic that develops between O and Elena, who comes to develop an almost maternal bond with her captive in the face of a deteriorating relationship with her own daughter (Sandra Echeverria). Indeed Blake Lively’s authentic potrayal of a wide-eyed California naif was unjustly maligned. Although the usually excellent Aaron Taylor-Johnson is curiously nondescript, Taylor Kitsch gives his strongest performance yet in a year that hasn’t proven especially notable for the actor.
The real star turns come from more established performers. Benicio Del Toro excels as an utterly vile excuse for a human being, John Travolta is magnificently reptilian as a corrupt DEA agent (humanised by a sincere love for his dying wife) and Salma Hayek proves an inspired, atypical casting choice for menacing matriarch Elena whom you completely believe has Lado under her thumb. Stone indulges his love of mixing multiple film formats but it pays off better here than in the irksome bombast of Natural Born Killers (1994). However the film’s transgressive levels of violence and in some instances sexual violence may prove too grotesque for some while the multiple endings are a misstep. Stone gives us the visceral, darkly romantic conclusion most moviegoers might expect of a film like this, then tacks on an ironic substitute that seems a more likely conclusion in real life but still proves unsatisfying.
Didactic, aggressive and in-your-face American writer-director who, after directing a couple of horrors (Seizure and The Hand) and writing Midnight Express and Scarface, settled into his own brand of political state-of-the-nation films like Salvador, the Oscar-winning Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon. Slightly out of character were The Doors and U-Turn: respectively, a celebration of the late sixties and a sweaty thriller. In 2004 he experienced his biggest flop with Alexander, a historical epic, but followed it with the reverent World Trade Center and a biopic of then just-leaving President George W. Bush. A belated sequel to Wall Street and gangster movie Savages were next. Say what you like, he has made his mark and loads of people have an opinion on him.