Why Oliver Stone's 'Savages' Stands Tall Among Classic Cartel Flicks

Which is not to say she is completely unsympathetic. She is simply no match for Hayek, whose spectacular, heart-felt hissy fits dispense with irony, true to the sad and treacherous Black Widow her character Elena Sánchez needs to be (read what she told Univision News about making her character memorable). In fact, Hayek’s analysis of O’s ménage a trois seems like one of the most sensible lines in the entire movie: “There’s something wrong with your love story, baby,” she says. “They may love you but they will never love you as much as they love each other. Otherwise they wouldn’t share you, would they?”

The uneven script plays with the ambiguous nature of the beast: Savages is the epithet Ben and Chon use to describe the Mexican cartels and their wholesale violence to enforce business practices, and Savages is what Elena and Lado think when they learn of Ben and Chon and O’s strange non-nuclear family. For a moment, there’s a serious question about who the “real” savage is.

One of the film’s most striking scenes is when Ben, desperate to try to free O from Lado’s lecherous claws, visits del Toro in a Tijuana hotel suite, replete with Mexican kitsch and a tacky call girl draped over him. “Welcome to the barrio,” says del Toro, channeling Edward James Olmos’ greatest Mexican Mafia moments. I’m the first to criticize the constant portrayal of Latinos as drug dealers, but for a moment, del Toro—who outside of his Oscar-winning role in Traffic, another Drug War classic, has not been cast in many significant films--seems to be asking mainstream America why they have rendered us invisible.

This erasure of Latino lives from mainstream American cinema points to another irony about reaction to the film. Scrutinized as “ultraviolent,” Savages is nowhere near as violent as it could have been when one considers the monstrous violence in Mexico catalogued in a book like El Narco, by journalist Ioan Grillo. The film’s most disturbing scene--the queasy immolation of Demian Bichir’s character, pales in comparison to the countless beheadings, massacres, rapes, and butchering of bodies that are a daily occurrence just south of the border.

The audience is not forced to meditate on this endless carnage in Savages. Instead, the film offers two endings; one a reworking of the bloody final sequences of Scarface and Bonnie and Clyde, and the other, “real” ending, an allegory implying that the DEA and their bosses in Washington, bear much of the blame for the sorry state of things. Here Travolta’s cynical DEA agent, looking like he needs a massage, emerges as the most ruthless manipulator of all.

This is no surprise coming from Oliver Stone who pledged allegiance to the 1960s counterculture after 15 months of combat duty in Vietnam at the height of that war. In a recent cover story for High Times, he laments how the Drug War is used to lock up tens of thousands of young people of color. In 2009, he directed South of the Border, a documentary about leftist Latin American presidents, which even though criticized for factual inaccuracies, suggested that Americans aren’t aware enough of the region’s problems and issues.

It’s easy to see Savages as a drug-addled fantasy created by a fading baby boomer about his millennial children. But in his own hippie rebel way, Stone gives us a bit of a glimpse of the other side of the story.

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