Oliver Stone’s 22nd film “Savages” is a brutal and relentless tale about the torn and tattered excesses of modern Americana where a heart of darkness frames the end days of youthful idealism with the butchery of pop culture criminality. Driven by Stone’s familiar frenetic camera and articulate editing techniques, his signature bravado fuels a rich mix of enchanted career criminals featuring actors new to the genre (Salma Hayek) and others that have made a nice career of being bad (Benicio Del Toro), lavish vacation set locations and serious (i.e. bloody as hell) confrontations while navigating a world that shares a striking similarity to our own troubled seas. It does suffer from time to time because of Stone’s impulsiveness for splashy action sequences and drawn out plot contrivances, but he also elevates what could have easily become just another tedious crime drama touting good will and clichés – just say no to drugs. Based on the wildly popular novel of the same name by Don Winslow, with a script co-collaborated between Stone, Winslow and Shane Salerno, the film is rapid fire tongues and razor wire wit governed by Stone’s obsession with the collateral damage of good and evil.
Pitting So-Cal hipster pot merchants in opposing roles of right and wrong (corrupt cops mingling with righteous criminal conspirators) Stone sets in motion a series unraveling uncertainties that scores the film with a definite sense of the moral ambiguities of our times. “Savages” feels like the perfect vehicle for Stone to crack the whip on the lazy and the uninspired who watch in idle fascination as media and technology washes the consequences of violence over them. Stone returns to themes of investigation and in particular the voyeuristic journalism he used to full effect in Natural Born Killers. This time new media and social networking becomes an intricate part of his commentary on what he views as a complicit culture of techno-savvy anarchists and social deviants uninterested with the consequences of their malaise. When distant threats take root in Southern California, in the backyard of the dreams of cops and robbers, drug dealers and new business dealings all erupt in a cacophony of flames as the most vicious and vile Mexican drug cartel goes after their piece of the American Dream.
“Savages” is not a film I would recommend to everyone. At the same time, it would be impossible to judge it entirely without experiencing it for yourself. On the one hand it is a crime drama riddled with action sequences and bloody violence. Get it watch it enjoy it and move on. On the other it is more, a an intricate web of stylish action and specific characterization that employs violence as a means of getting at preconceived notions and simple solutions. People are strange, as the song goes, and complicated, messy; there are no absolutes in life or an Oliver Stone film. Even the bad guys wear nice clothes and shiny bright smiles, crack jokes and have arguments about family life, intimacy and divorce. “Savages” is also an ultra-violent thrill ride composed of necessary brutality to shock the viewer out of his/her comfort zone, to question our complacency and willingness to accept devastation because we see it and read about it in our everyday lives. While I stand by a “see it” recommendation I would have to offer one caveat: once blood is shed you have to accept it as a frequent color of the volatility of wounded people and the inescapable color of fragility – or walk away. In a film about the wounded and the wounding, I applaud Mr. Stone for respecting us enough to avoid the MPAA‘s sanitized PG13 rating. It would have been disastrous to undermine the specificity of Don Winslow’s violence for the sake of wider audience appeal and box office receipts. Some stories cannot be curtailed for mass consumption on the premise that bloodless violence and sexless sensuality is salient and salable substitute for the messy realities of the living and the dead. “Savages” wraps us in the bandages of this generations great depression and often conflicted personal and social sense of connectedness. The characters are forced to confront their own feelings of abandoned idealism and political dissension in a world where small time criminals and international drug lords want the same thing – to believe happiness exists and the beautiful future of their dreams is possible even if getting there is almost always five feet away of obtainable.
Oliver Stone is a cartographer of ordinary and a craftsman of the indefinable perpetuity of the human spirit longing for identity, warmth, food and shelter. He leads expeditions to and from uncharted territories of the soul, finds approachable self-destruction a necessary means to an uncertain end. His stories are compounded with polar opposites of extreme differences, light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong. His characters are heroic and cowardly, bright, bold and enlightened but wrought with imperfections and poor choices. He manufactures them from thin air and carves them out of the granite of damned identities and we are interested in them because they bleed just like we do. Believable but extraordinary people. He removes their halos and pretty gossamer wings, clips the barbed tails and disarms their pitched forks for they multi-faceted, stubborn, driven to acts of kindness for moments at a time before inspired to violence. Oliver Stone fashions the perfect composition to frame exquisite wreckage, follows simple moments in time in order to surprise and convince us to trust his apparitions His characters are always mirrors of the emotions we carry with us in our everyday lives, the familiars and strangers we know or knew that inform where we’ve been and where we hope to travel. In this way he engages us on many levels and despite our reaction to his stories we find something about them that intrigues us, challenges our view of things, rewards us with fanciful and magical adventures. Like us his characters mis-speak, stammer, stumble and fall. They navigate his films through rough-hewed dreams about familiar places that remind us we are connected to emotional and spiritual landscapes. We find them in his films because we find them in our lives.
“Savages” is an exploration of surface observations about good and evil and the distinctions we make about acceptable crime and unforgivable brutality. Stone wants us to understand that savagery lives in our actions and our perceptions rather than in good and bad people, actions of crime and behavior of lawfulness. He sets out to burn our expectations in the effigy of pop culture excesses and boredom, in consumerism, in deceit and fraud, promises and lies. He treats situational violence like the icing on every failed suburban birthday cake party gone awry and every chain link fence dream come true interrupted by homicide, infanticide and other unsavory consequences to the modern decay of the American dream. For the unprepared or ill-equipped it is almost always too much for any one film to handle with any amount of balance or social responsibility. Yet Stone reminds us that in order to get at the ferocity of our desires he has to push beyond the breaking point, he has to stab the viewer where he/she hurts the most, in the jugular of their safely protected sensibilities. It is there that he finds our inherent blood lust, our flaws and perfection and there that he leaves us to reflect on good and evil and there that we bleed out on the rancid dirt floors of falling down cinema screens in the back ways and dead ends of Desolation Street set to the perfect music of dreams.
If “Savages” fails to affect you or perhaps it affects you too much, I believe Oliver Stone has accomplished his goal. If it disturbs while it entertains, if it offends while it defends your urge to cheer for criminals and hope for happy endings in some fashion or another, I believe Stone’s accomplished his goal. If it pushed you away in your thoughts to make of it what you will later, this confirms that both sides of any story contains jagged edges and mixed possibilities. Stone creates chaos to full effect, marrying what is often perceived as harmless hippies selling a little grass in this country against the knowable horrors of ruthless drug cartels across the border. This foggy region between the warring factions is where the story inevitably leads us to an understanding of the distinction between behavior and identity. When the smoke and haze finally clears and the gunfire echoes fade away, when presented with questions without answers we can access things or just leave them be. Caught up in the melee for so long and with such graphic consequences you’re almost required to take a long walk, shake off what you’ve seen and heard and come back later or perhaps what Oliver Stone is really saying is that to be entertained one should also be taken out of their comfort zone so that for every action there is a personal reaction all your own for you to figure out and make of it what you will.