‘Savages’ — a film review by Gary Chew
The narration for Savages begins with Blake Lively putting herself in a place similar to Kevin Spacey’s when he opened in the voice-over for the start of “American Beauty” (1999). Lively, as Ophelia, or O for short, lays it out that her character may not be alive at the end of the movie, even though O is speaking in past tense about what’s about to happen. Spacey didn’t allow us to know that his character would be dead at the close of “American Beauty.”
O is the live-in girlfriend of Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch). She sleeps with Ben and Chon. They’re a happy family of modern-day Southern California marijuana growers. O describes her guys as Ben the Buddhist and Chon the Badass.
Mellow Ben hasn’t confronted Afghanistan as the PTSD-ish Chon has. The guys are as different as night and day, but really buds. I found that a tad beyond my ability to handle in the disbelief department — two guys cool about living with and having the same alluring woman in the sack, sometimes simultaneously.
How do you say ménage à trois in Spanish?
Ben’s a botanist and out front doing great things, growing hybrid marijuana with enough THC to choke a drug mule. Chon, an ex-Navy SEAL, is the other headman running their thriving California weed-growing business and its distribution. He does the heavy lifting when people don’t want to pay their drug bill.
Their weed is so good, the Baja California Mexican drug cartel wants in on the high-caloric mutation.
You can see where this is going, I know. But first Oliver Stone, the director and one of the script writers of “Savages” (taken from the novel by Don Winslow) wants to show you around Laguna Beach, Calif., (where Ben and Chon do business) and make it clear these people live lives of pure luxury and decadence in these parts, except for some of their lower echelon cartel competitors in Tijuana and farther south.
Those ordinary people have a patrón named Lado (Benicio Del Toro). Lado lifts even more weight on his side of the border than Chon in the Golden State. But Lado has a boss who kicks butt better than anyone: Elena (Salma Hayek), a wealthy, self-absorbed woman who wears her icy heart on her sleeve and (spoiler) a wig on her head.
Dennis is a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agent who plays both sides of the weed-growing-and-distribution game. That’s John Travolta’s meaty role. Not that all Americans are jerks, but … what a typical American jerk Dennis is. I’ve been told some of them are seen and heard in the broadcast and cable media.
Don’t expect any of the people you see in “Savages” to be nice to each other, even though O and Ben would like to keep the negotiations peaceful, whether it’s “yea” or “nay” from Ben and Chon in deciding how to respond to the Baja bunch’s offer, made to the pair in a “Don Corleone” kind of way.
Blake Lively is so good at playing a victimized woman. See “The Town” (2010) if you don’t believe it. O is soon abducted from the mall, taken south of the border and locked up as a cartel hostage to leverage the stateside Weed Brothers who love her very much.
They (the trio) are, as I said, a happy family; however, I don’t think Stone’s new picture can be called a family film (rated R with occasional Spanish phrases that are subtitled. Very strong language).
“Savages” can be categorized, though, with other films you may have seen. There’s “No Country for Old Men” (2007). There’s “Traffic” (2000), which also featured Del Toro. There’s “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), one of the most static and probably bloodiest nonhorror films. And certainly there’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994).
I have a feeling Quentin Tarantino will be in the front row for “Savages.” Stone’s film has humor that’s reminiscent of Tarantino’s wild, cinematic blowout, which also had Travolta, memorably, in the cast.
Recall the almost macabre dialogue among Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel in “Pulp Fiction,” when Keitel’s character is called in to assist the other two in how to clean up a bloody mess after someone else gets blown away in the backseat of their car. Very funny … in kind of an unfunny way.
Watch for the scene in “Savages” between Dennis and Lado in Dennis’ kitchen. The conversation turns from vicious and threatening to a couple of dudes joined in commiseration about their domestic tribulations. The switch can be a laugh for you if you’re paying close attention. Travolta and Del Toro nail it.
Stone has allowed for a touch of such across his film … in dialogue, strikingly changing visuals, busy but not palsied camera work … and even laying in the heaviest measures of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68, for really intense parts of “Savages.”
The film runs you through the gamut of emotions, some causing you to think about diverting your gaze from the screen for a few seconds, but you don’t … then they’re over and it’s too late.
All of it works out, with a memorable finish by Stone that suggests that both the high-tech U.S. marijuana growers and the Baja California drug thugs, each in their own and different way, are savages, in whatever social class they find themselves.