With the addition of Savages to Oliver Stone’s catalogue, the synonymy of the term “auteur” in relation to the director remains but a palimpsest on a career which perhaps never convincingly merited the status. Without digressing, let me just say the man has dropped some serious eggs in his career, but perhaps the laudatory feeling surrounding his name stems more from his carte blanche wielding, maverick character than the actual quality of his output. Sure, his style is of the uncompromising nature that has made for inspired work like JFK - but let us not forget can also result in tumefied failures like Alexander. His latest film, most similar to his ’97 turkey U Turn, simulates the usual territory of the ins and outs of the drug world. It pins the good guys, Ben and Chon, who make the best stuff out there and are really cool and smart and handsome against the bad guys (a Mexican drug cartel) who are really mean and ugly and won’t take no for an answer. But where U Turn was gritty and at times unrelentingly nasty (though ultimately bad), Savages is only ostensibly dark and regardless of Stone’s persuasion, it maintains the spirit of a Hollywood summer blockbuster tame on both fronts sexual and violent.
The consequences of Stone’s more meager approach is a bit of a double-edged sword; the film’s lack of genuine grim leaves the audience completely unprovoked but at the same time, Savages succeeds more in thin mindless entertainment than Stone usually does in macabre provocation. The story, though unconvincing, is aided by a straight-forward approach on subject matter that is too often convoluted and ostentatious when portrayed on screen (Traffic, Blow, Requiem for a Dream). Instead we get the cheap thrills of the unpredictable drug cartel mixed with the underdog story of their adversaries, all wrapped up in Stone’s amorphous kitchen sink aesthetic.
The primary figure Stone becomes reliant upon for said cheap thrills is the unconscionable Mexican mad man Lado, played by Benicio Del Toro. He kills at will and without remorse. In a moment surrounding some climactic insanity, Stone thinks it clever to draw closer to the character while simultaneously clearing audible room for the chorus of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” Thus, Lado’s psychopathy is unexplainable, which is nothing new at the movies, we’ve been mesmerized by psycho killers plenty of times, and it would have been fine here had the film been more balanced on the subject.
Instead, as Lado’s boss (played by Selma Hayek) matches wits with the moral and bright Ben, Lado matches aggression and violence with Chon, the muscle of the operation. And while Chon is of the same vicious mold as Lado, it’s made clear quite quickly his madness is the result of his PTSD. In other words, he has inherited madness as a part of being loyal and honorable to his country. Mix that with the casting of Benicio Del Toro for Lado, here an ugly overweight slob, as opposed to Taylor Kitsch for the role of Chon, a white handsome built figure often without shirt. Though this may only be Stone’s lazy way to distinguish good versus evil, it’s not hard for the viewer to also infer a touch of the director’s racism and/or agitprop proclivities, inherent or otherwise.
Stone’s treatment of women in the film is suspect as well. There are two primary female roles: the aforementioned Elena, a powerful drug lord, and O, a sort of muse to Ben and Chon. While the film passes the Bechdel test, the correspondence between the two is significantly logistical as Elena holds O hostage. The only substantial conversation between the two is during an occasion when Elena has O for dinner. Elena calls into question O’s relationship with her two men right before digressing about the emotional loss of the men in her life. The one scene the audience is treated to some vulnerability in the mighty woman, it seems to infer Stone doesn’t believe a woman of power isn’t without their debt to the male species, and more simply, women have a primary perception of themselves as they fit around men.
The film did however seem to be hitting on a clever leitmotif involving the film’s title. The word “Savages” ostensibly fits the Mexican outfit and Lado, primarily, but as it is likewise used by the Mexicans (even Lado himself) as well as Ben and Chon to describe each other, it suggests Stone’s title is a transmutable term inviting dissection. Stone could be hitting on something as broad as cultural differences, which is interesting, but it seems to be approaching something more precise as the once ethical Ben expenses of all moral fiber if it means a chance at getting O back. Unquestionably, the films best moment is when Ben is pushed to lighting an innocent man on fire to cover his own hide. Here it appears as if Stone wants the viewer to question who is the better fit for the titular term: the psycho killer or he who has fallen from grace. Unfortunately, Stone negates all nobility of the film’s progression into any sort of thought-provocation when he has the heroes escaping from the film’s lame duck finale clear of all conscience and responsibility. The laziness here appears to be Stone’s modus operandi for the film. He gave us an Elmore Leonard-esque adventure without the excitement or wile and a drama of levity and desensitized sex and violence. In short, I have come to terms with often being suspicious of Stone’s ability, but never has his ambition been so in question.