Oliver Stone returns after a string of critically divisive films with this adaptation of Don Winslow’s bestselling novel of the same name: SAVAGES. Centred around a pair of hip, southern Californian pot farmers and their (shared) girlfriend who run afoul of a Mexican drug cartel, the film seems – at first look – to be a fairly straightforward entry into the “Mexican drug” genre. Scrutinized a bit further, however, Stone’s latest reveals itself as a compellingly tongue-in-cheek statement about the nature of the genre itself – even as it remains a fairly direct entry within it.
Written by Stone alongside co-writers Shane Salerno and Don Winslow (the book’s original author himself), SAVAGES’ story is – in Winslow’s own words, as he spoke to the New York Times a few weeks back – an attempt at lashing out against the “overly defined” sub-genres that have come to dominate the crime genre. Stone’s film certainly reflects this particular, rebellious essence, intentionally setting up archetypal (in some cases stereotypical) plot developments and relationships before shattering them violently and nonchalantly; just when you think a character is going to start acting in a way that we’ve seen their archetype act a million times before, the plot takes a jarring right turn – usually by means of a bullet to the brain.
Which is to say that SAVAGES is quite a violent movie. Unlike other films where we are simply meant to understand the depths of savagery (pun intended) inherent to the “bad” guys by way of off-screen violence, Stone instead chooses to inject his film with gritty – at times fairly grisly – on-screen butchery. Most of this takes place early on the film in order to accurately portray our criminal antagonists as men of unflinching brutality, and wisely, Stone chooses not to let the film devolve into a violently excessive gore-fest. Instead, he establishes and seeds character development and arcs through the use of violence: Benicio del Toro’s fantastic Lado is introduced in the midst of a violent murder, and all of his scenes of brutality further enhance one character or another’s progression down a path towards (again) savagery. Even in this introductory scene, the seeds of doubt in one stereotypical amateur are placed, with the promise of an arc that will build until eventually he will crack under the pressure and reveal himself as too soft for this business. And though Stone beautifully nurtures and develops this plot throughout the film, it’s intentionally cut short in the most gleefully intelligent way possible. He would rather satirize and subvert archetypical expectations than to pay them off, even if it means leaving a story beat unresolved and unsatisfying.
The cast – which is cut perfectly down the middle in a generational divide that speaks to the inherent themes of the entire film – features the straight-laced Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson as the young dealers, Blake Lively as their girlfriend, John Travolta as their DEA informant, Salma Hayek as the cartel leader and del Toro as her right-hand man. And as nice as it is to see Johnson back in the spotlight (after his breakout role in the subversive KICK-ASS), it’s even more refreshing to see Kitsch finally make competent use of himself in 2012. After a duo of Kitsch-led, critical disasters (JOHN CARTER and BATTLESHIP), the FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS actor finally lands himself in a role where his particular set of gruff, stoic talents can be made use of.
Most appealingly, however, is the way that the film handles the growing gap between generations; even here, in the seedy (this time, pun not intended) midst of organized crime, Winslow and Stone present the clashing ideologies of youth and age. At the head of our story enters Kitsch’s Chon, Johnson’s Ben and Lively’s “O” (a.k.a. Ophelia): a trio of young characters who find a way to make crime fun and take (most of) the violence out of the business. Even Chon, a soulless war veteran and the 1% to Ben’s 99% pacifist ideology, does not take pleasure in his acts of violence – he does them out of necessity and because they are the skill set that life has dealt him. Chon hurts and kills others as a means to protecting the things and people that he loves. For them, crime is not really crime – it doesn’t have to be the way that we see it in the movies. It can be new. It can be better. So what we end up with instead of cruel, three-piece-suit wearing crime lords are Ben’s hippie-esque ideologies, Chon’s necessary ruthlessness and O’s “I-don’t-even-realize-when-I’m-being-kidnapped” naivety.
On the flip side of the coin is the cartel, given the appropriate face of del Toro’s Lado. Bloodthirsty to the point of pure satire, it’s almost as if del Toro plays Lado like a caricature of one of his own past roles; a scheming, ridiculously over-the-top character that revels in the absurd at every opportunity, whether it be licking a wad of spit off his own face or chomping on a sandwich as he threatens somebody’s family. Here, we have a more distinctive, satirized representation of the older generation’s approach to criminal enterprise: it’s not making crime fun and taking out the violence – it’s finding fun in the violence. Placed alongside him is the ever-superficial Elena (Hayek’s character), who longs to both appear young – she is constantly shown applying moisturizer, and her hair is revealed to be a wig – as well as vicious – her threats, though seemingly empty, are highly convincing – makes her the perfect generational link between these two sides: cold and violence-glorifying on the surface but young at heart, clinging desperately to her more rational, less Lado-esque demeanour without ever letting it show.
And capping off the out-and-out subversion that takes place over the course of this movie is the great, film-specific ending which had our audience in an uproar. Featuring a fantastic “rewind”, Stone opts first to provide the foreshadowed, archetypical ending that one might expect out of a film in this genre before flipping back and giving a more realistic, subversive and maybe even less-narratively-satisfying ending that makes for a far more interesting deconstruction of audience expectations and the genre in which the film resides.
SAVAGES is a violent, tonally diverse entry into the absurdly specific Mexican-drug-crime sub-genre that it seeks to satirize. What should come as a surprise is just how funny the movie actually is: between the over-the-top performances by del Toro and Travolta and the the satirically subversive plot developments, there are an assortment of truly hilarious plot beats and lines. And what’s most satisfying about the comedy is how hard it is juxtaposed against the brutal violence; one moment you might be cringing and the next you’re laughing. These tonal shifts keep things feeling fresh and unique, and make for a true return to form for Oliver Stone.