The once masterful director needs to sober up and make movies with bite again.
By Greg Reifsteck
Drugs have fueled the creativity of many good artists. The list goes all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe and the wicked tales he came up with strung out on opium. Unfortunately that mind alteration can sometimes make good ideas ruminate a bit too long. The result can be a muddled mess of half ideas.
Such is director Oliver Stone’s latest sociology lesson Savages. He tries to study the collision of our peaceful and our primal self. What makes us cross over to our bad side? What takes us away from our content state and drives us to a fight or flight situation? His hypothesis seems to be we all have someone so precious that we will cross that line for, and when that person is taken from us we will fight tooth and nail and become a savage to get them back.
He sets up a story in which a hippy chick narrator named O or Ophelia (Blake Lively), acts as the Zen glue that holds the lives of two primo Kush entrepreneurs in the balance. Chon (Taylor Kitsch mumbling his way through another role), is a jar-headed Iraq veteran, and Ben (Aaron Johnson), is a Buddhist spouting brilliant botanist. Both guys obsess over her and love her, as well as each other. Of course the world of Stone is way too evil to keep their blissful equilibrium safe for very long, even when they seems insulated in sleepy Social of Laguna Beach.
Stone hasn’t met a natural high he didn’t like. He has made no bones about it, and is quite public about it. According to Jane Hamsher’s book Killer Instinct Stone came up with much of his wild imagery for his notoriously amped-up Bonnie and Clyde Natural Born Killers while in a peyote- induced haze.
This is why when I saw the high-octane trailers for Savages, I expected Stone’s adrenaline junky side. Instead when his mind unleashes a Mexican drug cartel led by the ice queen Elena (Salma Hayek) and her menacing minion Lado (Benicio Del Toro) on this flawed love-triangle of “heroes,” I hoped would get to see some real bite.
Elena has Lado kidnap O from the lovers, so she can force them to join her drug empire. She is very naïve and from her privileged upbringing doesn’t have much worldly experience beyond the mall. Soon she is in a remote location, sleeping on a dirty bed in a cage, being drugged in and out of conscience by Lado, who is surely doing unspeakable things to her, which are only revealed in the closing moments of the film.
Why don’t we see any of this true evil horror earlier? Unfortunately, Stone has his characters babbling, philosophizing and endlessly facing off, instead of really going to battle. It’s like the most boring of UFC fights, when neither opponent will commit and they just keep circling and kicking each other in the shins.
Stone masterfully and successfully studied a similar chess game of good vs. evil in the piece of pulp U-Turn (1997). In that escapist film we saw some good old backwoods sex and carnage between a drifter trying to take a wife away from her older controlling husband. But, in Savages we just get glimpses of some torture, with Stone seeming to be afraid to really pull the trigger. An alleged snitch in the cartel is set on fire at a distance for his wrong doing, and the camera is at a distance and is shot all muddled just when we are going to truly see something intense.
The vibe I kept getting was similar to the one I feel while I am watching the Stone-penned Scarface when it plays on regular television. I am not a sadist, but if I have been sold that a film is going to go to a certain place, I am hoping it will get what I expect.
Also, Stone keeps finding redeeming qualities to all of his evildoers. Maybe he is trying to say there is a silver lining to everyone, no matter how damaged we are? Elena has a daughter she never sees because she is ashamed of her mother’s career choice in crime. So, when O demands to stop being mistreated by Lado, Elena takes her into her mansion and makes her a surrogate daughter.
All of this is truly a shame since the acting is top notch all around (well except for the unwatchable Kitsch). We even have John Travolta thrown in for comedy relief as a bumbling DEA agent trying to play both sides. They all seem more than willing to go that extra mile, especially Tel Toro whose scenes will make you pray that you never get an unexpected visit from gardeners at your house.
Nothing good lasts forever is the message I got from Savages. Not just from the plot, but from the style of Stones directing. This is the man behind Platoon and Wall Street for goodness sakes. This man used to have the balls to give us a Sgt. Elias or a Gordon Gekko. Soon he gave us unwatchable Alexander the Great biopics and watered down treatises on the downside of pro football. A story called Savages needed more suspense, more twists, and more old-school Stone before he got too stoned to tell a coherent story.
Stone has broken the cardinal rule of Tony Montana, the greatest characters he ever written. He has gotten high on his own supply. The film world is no longer his. He needs to sober up go back to the basics. He needs to go back to being a savage himself.