Dir. Oliver Motherfucking Stone
Written: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow & Oliver Stone
Starring John “Tim Riggins” Carter, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro, John Travolta, Damian Bichir
I have really mixed feelings about SAVAGES. On one hand, there are some serious issues with the film that aren’t easily dismissed. On the other hand, though, you gotta like that it’s easily the most Oliver Stone film since U-TURN in 1997. That’s not to say the best Oliver Stone film since then -- that honor would have to go to W in 2008. But anyone could have made that film; OK, only Stone would have, but it’s still the work of the meeker, kinder, more respectable filmmaker that Stone seemed to want us to think he’d become since the late 90s. That one was from the director that gave us the weepy, reverential human drama of WORLD TRADE CENTER. This one’s from the director that cut off Tommy Lee Jones’s head and stuck it on a makeshift spear. It’s not a film that Stone made, it’s one that only he could make. Yes folks, it happened: ol’ Ollie got his sleaze back. And I think we can all agree the world is a better/worse place for it.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for responsible, thoughtful, and enlightening films about the beauty and pain of the human experience. But for now, we’ll leave that for other filmmakers, because when it comes to making debased, debauched, depraved little slices of cinematic savagery, nobody delivers like Stone does. After watching so many horror films directed by nerdy fanboys who spend so much effort and mental energy trying to think of ways to shock you, it’s fun to watch Stone breezily blow by them, barely even taking notice of the spectacularly perverted horror show he’s turned the world into. He’s not especially trying to shock you. He’s just a shocking guy.
This isn’t quite the nightmarish fever dream that something like NATURAL BORN KILLERS is, but I gotta say, it’s a film which generally lives up to its name. Tim Riggins, for instance, is introduced first by his cheerfully bouncing ass, and then by the skinny legs of the blonde he’s nut-deep on top of. But the film itself is introduced by Benicio Del Toro, wearing a skull mask, chainsawing apart a group of bloody Mexicans* on the floor of a dirty basement. Your move, Tony Montana and Oliver Stone from 1983. This shit is so routine for Del Toro that he doesn’t even save it for a dramatic moment, he just throws it in as a friendly hello, like a business card. He sends the video of their decapitated heads and crucified bodies (which must have taken some effort to attach the to the concrete walls without the aid of a Predator) to our boy John Carter along with a smiley face and a text message.
After the sex, (“I have orgasms, he has WARgasms!” Blake Lively hilarious narrates in the blissfully retarded way she talks over the whole film as if it’s a DVD commentary track composed of refrigerator poetry) Riggins disinterestedly browses the video while Lively’s “O” character looks over his shoulder and ask with a kind of bored curiosity, “Afghanistan?” “No.” he answers. “Mexico.”** And she wanders away. Nobody seems too upset about the horrific death of half a dozen men, because fuck it, they’re Mexican. Whatcha gonna do, be sad about it even though you’re a rich white kid living on the beach and having enormously fulfilling hot sex ten times a day while high off your mind? Fuckin’ savage.
|I'm sure the many, many Mexicans who die during this movie will have some peace in the next life, knowing they died so these two rich white boys could fuck this spray-tanned blonde bimbo.|
The story (taken from co-writer Don Winslow’s novel of the same name) is that two airheaded hardbodies (Tim Riggins and KICK-ASS’s Aaron Johnson) and their vacant blonde mutual fuckbuddy (Blake Lively) make it good by selling some top-quality home-grown cannabis (or “wacky tobacky” as I believe the kids call it these days). They’re approached by the vicious Baja drug cartel headed by Elena (Salma Hayek) and her henchmen (Benicio Del Toro, Damian Bichir) with an “offer” to “partner with their methods.” It’s a good deal, but they rightly don’t trust the cartel and try to bail. Things go badly, and before long the skinny white girl is locked up in a hidden cell in Mexico with Benicio, and the boys have to go all crazy white boy violent to get her back.
The moral of the story is, you never fucking come between rich white kids and easy pussy. John Carter, as beefcake ex-SEAL Chon, is an emotionally stunted killing machine, so he’s pretty much revving to kill some motherfuckers before they’ve even heard their offer. Johnson is Ben, supposedly the peaceful stoner guy (“Ben’s the Buddhist, Chon’s the BADDIST!” as O poetically narrates) is said to not want violence, but quickly gets on board with the whole ‘kill em all philosophy espoused by his friend once blondie is gone. That we’re supposed to root for these doofuses is the movie’s greatest trick, because Stone is smart enough to not make them especially likeable or intelligent. We’re primed to hate the ruthless cartel thugs, and we’re primed to root for the pretty Americans, and so we do. But of course, there’s not really any significant moral difference between the two groups. Pushed in the slightest, and our boys respond with vicious murder utterly indistinguishable from the adversaries South of the Border*** (Which by the way is also the name of that documentary Stone made about how Hugo Chavez is awesome, I really gotta take a look at that). Stone isn’t making a message movie, but there’s an underlying genius to the way he makes all parties utterly despicable but also troublesomely relatable. Everyone’s capable of unbelievable savagery and stupidity, but they’re also unmistakably human. There are no one-dimensional monsters in here, even though they do indisputably monsterous things which seem completely at odds with their relatable human moments.
O, for instance, is playing the damsel in distress here, kidnapped by dangerous thugs and held prisoner in a scary, tiny cell. So we feel for her on some level -- she didn’t deserve this. But we also see how totally callous she is towards the suffering of others from the very beginning of the film when she responds to the beheading video with a yawn. Now that she herself is suffering, she’s not so much afraid as indignant. She demands to talk to the person in charge. She’s a rich white girl, how dare they treat her like this? When Hayek as Cartel chief Elena does talk to her, it’s with a interesting mix of sympathy and contempt. On one hand, she herself has a vacant, rich young daughter who has no sense of perspective at all. On the other hand, Elena has spent her whole life watching her family get murdered around her, so she knows what real problems look like and can hardly comprehend how insulated O’s world of muscular rich beach boys and absentee parents is. They’re both flawed but real human beings, and the thing that ties them together in this world is their mutual predilection towards savagery when it comes down to the line.
|Least amount of brains at a fancy dinner table since HANNIBAL.|
Savagery, as the movie helpfully defines it aloud (“Webster defines Savage as...”), is a regression to a primitive state. We think of it as synonymous with violence, but of course that’s not really the whole story. Stone’s version of savages are savage in their violence, but also in all their emotions and actions -- they’re not debased so much as primal. O has not a single thought in her pretty head throughout the movie except wanting to make her life as pleasurable and simple as possible. Elena, more than anything, wants the love and the safety of her children. The boys just want their easy pussy back. No one here has a philosophical motive beyond their immediate pleasure, and even though it seems at first like Ben (with his doctrine of nonviolence) is going to maybe elevate things a little, the movie quickly shows us that he drops that stuff when it becomes inconvenient. In fact, I think the film sort of likes him more once he does. It’s kind of disturbing, but I think Stone finds something sort of endearing about stripping people of their delusions of civilization and exposing them as simple and primal. Folks like Wes Craven and Sam Peckinpah are always associated with this sort of exposure of man’s savage nature, but they were both also repulsed by it in a way which Stone doesn’t seem to be. Maybe after his long journey down the conspiracy rabbit hole, the simplicity of shooting someone for a quick buck is actually kind of comforting to him.
It is a political film, in a way, when you think about it like that. Without any explicit commentary ( a rarity as long as O’s babbling on), Stone makes sure we know that this film is very, very much of our time. Chon is back from Afghanistan. The cartels talk about IEDs and US soldiers. The corrupt DEA agent played by John Travolta (playing Kevin Nealon for some reason) compares the cartel to Wal-Mart moving in on smaller businesses. All the communication we see is via skype, email, or text. I’m kinda surprised that Stone doesn’t show up standing against a blank wall holding today’s newspaper at some point. Why all this emphasis on making a movie as up-to-the-minute current as possible, which obviously will not age well as we move into other eras? Because this movie is Stone’s explanation for why now IS the way it is. After dismantling the 70s in BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, the 80s in WALL STREET, and the 90s in NATURAL BORN KILLERS, Stone has finally offered us his parable for the new millenium. And it’s scared, uncertain morons trying desperately to cling on to their collapsing luxury lifestyle at any cost. When we look at these massacres in Afghanistan or Mexico and wonder what kind of person could do such a thing, Stone answers us very firmly: you. You and your friends and family. You could do it, and if things started to get bad, you would do it. You’re only civilized as long as it’s comfortable. Civilization isn’t a fraud, exactly, just a luxury in a world where luxury has an expiration date which is approaching much faster than anyone cares to admit.
|This Strongbad movie isn't as faithful to the original as I thought it would be.|
Of course, none of this would be of much interest if there movie itself was shit. Fortunately, Stone directs with a vigor and intensity that very well suits the story’s bold strokes. Back are the shifting film stocks, the overt juxtapositions, the kinetic editing, the bossy score. It’s all the same shit that mainstream directors do now to cover up the fact that their movies are bland and boring, so you’d be forgiven for being skeptical. But Stone invented this shit. It’s not there to cover anything up, it’s just the way he is. So even though it’s the same bag of tricks, it simply works better than you’ve seen in a long time. It’s not as aggressive as something like JFK or NATURAL BORN KILLERS, but you’ll never go for more than a few minutes without remembering who’s behind that camera. Hell, the only thing he somehow manages to resist is his trademark mystical Indian guide, which is especially hard to believe since part of the movie takes place on an Indian reservation the cartel is using as a means to skirt US Federal law.
So Stone’s in excellent form, and he’s backed up by his fine cast. Benicio, of course, is awesome. He seems to have taken a look at Javier Bardem’s turn in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and decided to one-up every aspect of that performance, with more violence, hammier scenery chewing, worse hair, and even worse hair. But it’s all in good fun. The surprise here is Salma Hayek, taking a big risk by playing a villain but an even bigger risk by playing the mother of a teenager. Hayek’s Elena character is easily the most interesting character in the film, (although Del Toro gets to have more fun) pulling off the complexities of being utterly ruthless and still maintaining some hints of matronly vulnerability. Whereas Del Toro goes big, she succeeds in small moments, in slight facial expressions, in the way she poses herself around others and the way she relaxes when she’s alone. If you ever wondered if Hayek was more than just an obscenely pretty face, well, here’s your answer. She even gets to use some Spanish! The Latino cast far outpaces the Americans, but they do fine too. Everybody seems to be trying hard and they all register as convincing, if not exactly deep, performances.
All that said, the movie has some issues. For one, O’s narrating, despite occasionally delivering some hilariously boneheaded howlers, is also completely relentless and mostly of the most tiresomely literal character imaginable. Stone is smart enough to know to show us rather than tell us, so why all the scenes of O explaining exactly what we’re watching happen in front of us? For that matter, why is she narrating at all? This is not exactly a complicated story, guys. And ironically, when things do start to get a bit complicated between the various factions and characters, she shuts the fuck up. I wonder if maybe she just doesn’t understand the plot of the story’s she’s telling herself and doesn’t want to look stupid.
|Oro Del Toro|
Another major problem is that the story’s basic dramatic hinge doesn’t end up feeling as cohesive as it needs to be. The heart of the plot revolves around the relationship between Chon, Ben, and O, and their mutual love of each other and willingness to fight to stay together. But you know, as much as making them a little on the vacant side is good for the film’s themes, it makes it hard to read their relationship as very important or care much what comes of it. Moreover, their scenes together feel underdeveloped and superficial, finding the characters quipping at each other rather than genuinely relating. So while you may be interested in their story, you’re never really pulling for them like the story seems to think you should be. This is particularly problematic during the (SPOILER) egregious happy ending which seems to think you’re gonna be thrilled that the rich white kids got what they wanted.
All that is less than ideal, obviously, but maybe the most problematic shortcoming here is that although Ollie is ingratiating himself to us through the resplendent application of filmatic sleaze... I dunno, dude I just didn’t get that offended. The movie is full of sex and violence, but if it’s going for shock, it probably should have gone further. It’s weird, because to a normal filmgoing audience this movie probably makes TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE look like a particularly tame episode of Mr. Rogers. I mean, it's heroes are polyamorous sexed-up drug dealers. You got heads chopped off, heads blown off, heads shot out (a lot of head damage, now that I think about it) people burned alive, people tortured to death, rape, whipping, rampant drug use, a two-guys-one girl drugged-up threesome, and at one point I swear to fucking god there’s a whole scene where a guy talks to our boys with his fucking eyeball hanging out his head, like the Miss Piggy muppet from DARK CRYSTAL. The DEA is revealed to be corrupt, our nice-guy drug dealers are corrupted by violence, obviously the cartel lives up to their reputation, and even the Native Americans are revealed to be in on it. Not a lot of churchgoing young Republicans in here. But while it’s true that the movie is a very bad role model, it never quite becomes as ridiculously over-the-line as it probably needs to be to coast on its bad reputation. I’m glad Stone got his sleaze workin’ again after all these years, but to keep up with today’s cutting edge depravity he’s gonna have to get a little more creative and excessive than he does here. This is just a violent, irresponsible movie, not a genuinely fucking evil movie. It’s a little more Han Solo than Patrick Bateman. So something of a disappointment there.
Still, this thing is ultimately a net gain for society at large, the human soul, the artistic community, etc. It’s Stone trying to entertain you as hard as he can, with the most entertaining tools he knows of (sex, violence, drugs, film stocks, Benicio Del Toro) in his usual way, which is to try to go as far as he reasonably can, and then go a few steps further. I could be better, but it’s a unique and in some stupid way kinda thoughtful film which reflects the stupidity of our time with distorted but strangely honest lens. That, and Tim Riggin’s ass. Ladies, don’t ever say ol’ Ollie Stone never did nothin for ya.
*Since they are in Mexico, I’m going to refer to these characters as Mexican, although of course it’s entirely possible that they’re individuals of Latino heritage who come from a myriad of different countries.
**There’s no one in the video who could be feasibly construed to be Afghani, so I’m left to assume she thought they were a group of Latinos who had gotten lost on their way to Laguna Beach and ended up in Afghanistan.
***Although they do draw the line at killing white people. In one of the film’s (surprisingly) few squirm-inducing racially tone-deaf moments, they brutally murder a woman’s Mexican bodyguard, but politely tie up her white boyfriend.