July 9, 2012 -- For those of you who had visions of Tony Montana brandishing a machine gun over a pile of cocaine, Oliver Stone’s Savages is not exactly a classic gangster flick. Snarkily delivered moral lessons about the Drug War aside, it’s mostly a murky mess of barely distinguishable genres, propelled by a screenplay that manages to be both sublime and ridiculous. But if you read between the lines, in its own stilted way, Savages opens up a dialog between Anglo-American and Latino cultures that we rarely seen in mainstream Hollywood cinema.
Set in Southern California, whose relative proximity to Sinaloa province to the south makes it a fertile site for Anglo-Latino crossover, the film steers clear of both the Stone-scripted Scarface’s manic Marielito masquerade and the director’s conspiracy theory muckraking in JFK and Wall Street. Instead, Savages is a scandalous fable about what happens when the lost idealism of the 1960s--rekindled by the millennial generation—comes into violent conflict with big box-style capitalism run by feudal Mexican cartels with conservative family values.
Ben and Chon (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch) are two high school buddies who pool their talents together to run a multimillion dollar marijuana business from idyllic Laguna Beach. O (Blake Lively) is their live-in girlfriend with whom they have graphic sex one-on-one, and some PG-rated spooning when all three are present. Ostensibly O likes the arrangement because Ben is a sensitive visionary and Chon is a violent ex Navy Seal sex machine, fulfilling her complex physical and emotional needs.
When the film opens, they are confronted by a heavy-handed demand by the Mexican Baja Cartel that they become part of the “family.” This sets up a battle between “good” and “evil,” where Ben and Chon represent New Age rugged individualism and the cartels act as if they were cable providers who came to your house and cut off your head if you didn’t pay the bill.
But by casting superior actors like Benicio del Toro and Salma Hayek to clash with the bland Johnson and Kitsch, Savages forces most viewers to consider the friendly neighborhood narcos as somewhat complex Latinos and not mere stereotypes. Their earthy pragmatism exposes the smug sense of entitlement and ineffectual philanthropy of elite entrepreneurs who would rather save children in Africa than the ones in South Central. When del Toro’s Lado storms into the house of a smarmy DEA agent played by John Travolta, with a “landscaping” crew wielding chainsaws, it’s almost as if he’s saying “you might think we’re just gardeners, but we are some bad-assed businessmen, yo.”
In a concession to lipstick feminism, or more likely the Don Winslow pulp fiction novel the screenplay is adapted from, the story is narrated by O (for Ophelia, a half-baked nod to Shakespeare), who as played by Blake Lively is not much of a revelation. Despite her seemingly exotic choice of being in love with and cohabiting with two men, Lively comes off as nothing more than a sorority queen in made-from-hemp halter tops, her eroticism consisting of the blank, stoned stare of a vegan foodie at Sunday brunch.
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.