With Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek. Written by Shane Salerno & Don Winslow & Oliver Stone. Directed by Oliver Stone. Rated R (for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout). 127 minutes.
It’s been a long time since an Oliver Stone film grabbed viewers by the throat and wouldn’t let go. His last decade of movies – “Alexander,” “World Trade Center,” “W.” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” – were all pretty forgettable. With SAVAGES, he’s put politics and history aside to focus on a combination love story and violent crime drama.
He covered this territory nearly twenty years ago with “Natural Born Killers,” but that was at once more cartoonish and ultra-violent. There’s plenty of violence here, starting with the beheadings that open the story, but they are kept in the context of the violent lives of the characters and not just there for sadistic shock effect. Adapting a novel by Don Winslow (who worked on the screenplay with Stone and Shane Salerno), Stone may occasionally make you wince at the plot twists and the purple prose, but the film won’t leave you bored.
It begins with Ophelia (Blake Lively), known as “O,” telling us her story and noting that just because she’s the narrator doesn’t mean she makes it to the end. As you gasp at the implications of that, she explains how she’s in love with two men who are best friends and partners in a high-quality marijuana operation in California. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is a veteran of the Iraq War still haunted by what he’s seen. We first see him in the midst of strenuous sex with O as, through voiceover, she explains he gives her orgasms while he achieves a “wargasm.”
Ben (Aaron Johnson) is the botanist who takes some of their massive profits and runs charitable projects in the third world. If O “has sex” with Chon, she “makes love” with Ben, and Stone makes sure we get scenes of both. If all this sounds like a remake of “Jules and Jim” seen through a haze of a THC cloud, you’d be right. The difference is that the complication isn’t World War I but a Mexican drug cartel that wants to take them over. A corrupt DEA agent (John Travolta) advises them to sell out, and it’s clear that the Mexican gangsters are ruthless, with Benicio del Toro and a surprising Salma Hayek appearing to good effect. Then a kidnapping complicates matters and all hell breaks loose.
What seems to fascinate Stone is what motivates the various characters and how they have no respect for either their rivals or their associates by convenience. At key points both the Americans and the Mexicans refer to the others as “savages” as if unable to grasp that they’re all interested in the same things: money, power, and not being under someone else’s control. As each struggles to maintain the upper hand, they’re busily betraying each other and paying the consequences for it. In what no doubt will be the most controversial choice in the film, Stone gives us two possible outcomes and leaves it to the viewer to decide which one makes more sense.
Stone gets some terrific performances out of his cast, with Kitsch and Johnson strong as our heroes, and Travolta playing a complete weasel as the crooked narco. Lively has the most difficult role in that she’s playing a shallow character who has to make the audience believe that two men would not only love her but being willing to share her affections. If there are problems with her character it’s in the writing, not in the performance.
“Savages” is a violent and tough-minded film about characters looking out for their own self-interest no matter who else it may hurt. These are not nice people, but they are fascinating to watch.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.