The most shocking element of Oliver Stone’s latest directorial effort, Savages, isn’t the violence or female polygamy (a feat perhaps only Blake Lively could accomplish). It’s how linear and easy to follow the narrative is. Stone, generally notorious for his zigzagging, quagmiric plots and plot devices, has opted for a straightforwardly violent and sexual film. This precedent has not been so clearly established by the director since 2006′s World Trade Center (minus the sex and violence, obviously).
Opening with the omniscient, Gossip Girl-like narration of Ophelia “O” Sage (Lively–and yes, she was supposed to be named after the famed Hamlet character), we learn of the seedy, marijuana-soaked underworld of, believe it or not, Laguna Beach, California, most of which is operated by the two loves of her life, Chon (Taylor Kitsch, whose campy film choices, like John Tucker Must Die and Snakes on a Plane, I’m beginning to miss) and Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who has been making waves with his recent roles in Albert Nobbs and Anna Karenina). As O warns us, this is not a story that is necessarily going to turn out well.
With Ben’s botany genius and Chon’s penchant for beating the shit out of people (he’s served several tours of duty in Afghanistan, if, for nothing else, to bring Ben back the best cannabis seeds), they’ve become a force to be reckoned with–not to mention the THC levels in their weed have reached thirty-three percent. Add their connections with a DEA agent named Dennis (John Travolta), and they’re pretty much untouchable, that is, until a Mexican cartel run by a woman named Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek, whose wig is on point in this movie) tries to get in on their business.
After being sent a video of several men getting their heads decapitated, Chon feels that he and Ben have no choice but to go to a meeting Elena (who they don’t yet know is in charge) has arranged at a hotel room. Worried for both of their safety, O doesn’t think they should make a deal with anyone or agree to sell any part of their business. Regardless, neither Chon nor Ben wants their heads chopped off for the sake of some weed, and so, they go to the hotel to stroke the feathers of pride. Predictably, however, they turn down the offer and leave with secret plans for the three of them to flee to Indonesia, which leads to the kidnapping of O the following day.
Based on the novel by Don Winslow, screenwriter Shane Salerno (best known for writing 1998′s Armageddon), in conjunction with Winslow, does his best to fit all of the elements of the story into the film, though it is a challenge considering how convoluted everything can get when there are drugs, cartels, sides being played, and betrayals being made at every turn. Benicio del Toro (in one of his foulest looks to date, the mullet especially causing most of the cringe factor) as Miguel “Lado” Arroyo presents one of the more confusing aspects of the plot, though all you really need to know is that he is the most villainous and ire-invoking characters, extremely well-played by del Toro.
How it all unfurls once the kidnapping commences is merely Stone doing what he does best (though slightly less entertainingly than, say, Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie): Showcasing violence at its goriest and most unpleasant. A man being tortured with his eyeball popped out of its socket is just one example. And then there’s Lado retroactively showing O that he raped her while she was unconscious, holding up the video on his phone for her to see. So yeah, you know, just ordinary, run of the mill Oliver Stone fare.
While Savages is entertaining, scenically beautiful and, let’s just say it, humanly beautiful (save for Benicio del Toro), it doesn’t manage to say anything new or insightful about the drug world that other, more genuinely poignant drug movies have, even if indirectly (e.g. 24 Hour People, A Clockwork Orange, and City of God), already expressed.