Saturday, July 14, 2012

Welcome Back, Oliver! -- Reflections on "Savages" (2012)

I have been very frustrated with the advertising for Oliver Stone’s new film, Savages. While the trailers have been excellent, and have spelled out nicely what the film is about and what to expect without giving away too much of the plot (something to be thankful for in this day and age of shitty, reveal everything, trailers), recent TV spots have made sure to inform audiences that this film is “from the writer of Scarface.”

Oliver Stone is responsible for some of the most unique and influential films in cinema history. A rundown of his IMDb is a resume only a handful of directors can compete with: Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon, Natural Born Killers, Talk Radio, JFK, Nixon, The Doors, Any Given Sunday. While not always successful – World Trade Center, anyone? – he is never boring. His films are frenetic, inventive, and usually seem to mesh his strong liberal worldview with strong stories about people on the edge. To reduce his career to “from the writer of Scarface” to sell a movie about drug trading is insulting. Of course, Stone is no doubt laughing all the way to the bank.

Savages, while not the equal of Stone’s finest work, is an excellent entertainment, toned down in political heat to silence his harshest critics who’ve blasted his recent work for its political indulgences. While more of Stone’s worldview would have made this film even better, perhaps great even, it doesn’t lessen the pleasure of the viewing experience, which is chock full of suspense, tension, and – dare I say it – fun.

The heart of this story, based on a novel I’ve read it takes great liberties with, is a romantic triangle. O (Blake Lively) is in love with two men, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson). Chon is a vet of the Iraq War who’s violent and loyal; Ben is the brains, a botanist and business man who cultivates a potent strain of pot taken from some excellent beans Chon found in the Middle East. The two have built an independent distribution company out of the pot business, and have attracted the interest of a Tijuana-based Mexican cartel, run by Elena (Salma Hayak). When Ben and Chon reject Elena’s offer to involve them in her business, she has O kidnapped to change their minds. What results is a number of tense sequences in which our rebel heroes try to take their shared woman back intercut with some equally tense moments in which O struggles to face her captors.

The performances in this film are quite convincing, despite the crazy, at times ridiculously over-the-top story. Kudos to Salma Hayak and Benicio del Toro as her right hand man, Lado, who seem to be having a remarkable amount of fun playing larger than life characters. Taylor Kitsch is able to shed some of the stink of John Carter and Battleship by playing a character more in his wheelhouse – a brooding anti-hero. And Blake Lively finally comes across as more than a pretty face; it’s amazing what a good director can do for you – better than a good make-up artist, even.

But the star of the show is Oliver Stone. From the first juggle between color and black-and-white, it’s obvious he’s in the director’s chair. And he seems to be relishing the opportunity to make a pure action film with only a slight political agenda – it’s obvious he’s in favor of legalizing marijuana, as we are consistently reminded the story’s conflict wouldn’t exist if marijuana wasn’t illegal. This is a far cry from Soderbergh’s Traffic. Stone injects the action sequences with an exploitative glee we haven’t really seen since U-Turn, and maybe even since Natural Born Killers. It’s nice to have this version of Oliver Stone behind the camera. He’s quite the anarchist when he wants to be, and that kind of unpredictability is exactly what the world of cinema needs.

But make no mistakes in interpreting my opinion. While Savages is an enjoyable film, it is not without problems. Its biggest misstep is the remarkably ambiguous ending, which seems to want to have its cake and eat it, too; it feels unjustified, even though you can’t take your eyes away. And the way Stone handles the love triangle feels quite clumsy at times. In one of the movie’s best scenes, Elena is sharing a meal with O and discussing O’s relationship with the boys. Elena remarks that it seems if the two men are willing to share O then they must love each other more than either loves her. It’s a great, revelatory moment that opens so many thematic and dramatic possibilities, and I was very frustrated that Stone didn’t follow that character arc the rest of the way. It didn’t ruin the experience for me, but it left me feeling a bit cheated.

Savages is Oliver Stone having a good time, reminding us that he is a high class filmmaker capable of making movies that aren’t merely college level classes in conspiracy theory and liberal politics. I’m hoping his next film builds upon this. But I’m also hoping the marketing department can come up with selling points not nearly so reductive and insulting of a great director’s career.