Sunday, July 15, 2012

Savages / *** (R)

O: Blake Lively
Chon: Taylor Kitsch
Ben: Aaron Johnson
Lado: Benicio del Toro
Elena: Salma Hayek
Dennis: John Travolta
Alex: Demián Bichir
Spin: Emile Hirsch

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Shane Salerno & Don Winslow & Oliver Stone. Based on the novel by Winslow. Running time: 131 min. Rated R (for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout).

Savages (noun) (chiefly in historical and literary contexts) Members of a people regarded as primitive and uncivilized.

Oliver Stone’s new movie “Savages” tackles a subject that has become familiar cinematic fodder over the past forty years—the business of illegal drug trade.  As is often the case with such stories, it involves pretty young people who start out living the high life profited from the lucrative business of drug manufacturing. Instead of life getting better, however, they eventually find themselves over their heads in the violent world sculpted by the people who hold all the power, and they must either perish or lower their moral standards to fight that violence with similar behavior. They must become savages, which they may have been all along.

We are told in voice over by O (Blake Lively, “Gossip Girl”) that this story could end badly for her. She then tells us about her boyfriend Chon (Taylor Kitsch, “John Carter”). He is former Special Forces, who had been deployed in Afghanistan. The war damaged him, but he loves her. He’s the muscle half of California’s most infamous marijuana producers. They have the best in the business and a Mexican cartel wants them to join up as business partners.

Then she tells us about Ben (Aaron Johnson, “Kick-Ass”), the botanist of the operation, who is thinking it’s about time to get out of the business anyway. She loves him too, and he her. Her comparisons of their little love triangle to the characters in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance” kid may carry over further than just the notion of two criminals sharing one girl. I’ve read much about the homosexual undertones of that movie. They remain undertones here as well. And, don’t Butch and Sundance die at the end of that movie? A detail that doesn’t escape Chon and Ben’s observations.

The cartel doesn’t want these youngsters to leave the business. The cartel needs not just their business but also their expertise in growing the pot. Joining the cartel is not a request in the eyes of the cartel kingpin, Elena (Salma Hayek, “Grown Ups”); it’s an order. She sends her enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro, “The Wolfman”), to convince them. He takes the only thing they really care for—O.

Even the synopsis of this material sounds like standard fare for a drug trade movie. The truth is, it is. What separates it from the large pack of drug crime movies that exists now is the direction by Oliver Stone. This is the best-looking drug trade movie since Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster”. Stone’s skill is undeniable. The story isn’t as interesting as in Scott’s film, but Stone keeps the audience involved by knowing when to sit back and observe and when to rev up his stylistic choices to build suspense and tension. It isn’t one of his hyperkinetically edited films because he’s more interested in the character’s motivations than their actions.

Chon and Ben are opposites. Stone and his co-screenwriters play their characters off of each other, but not in the typical way two opposite protagonists usually work against each other. They argue, yes. But like in a good marriage, their arguments don’t drive them apart. Their disputes work like therapy to get them both to come to better-balanced decisions. Meanwhile, there is also a great deal of tension between Lado and Elena. It isn’t said outright, but there’s a sense that a woman in the cartels is not valued as a leader. Elena is ruthless, but Lado plays all the angles.

John Travolta (“From Paris with Love”) supplies perhaps the most interesting character of the bunch. He plays Dennis, a corrupt DEA agent on the take with Chon and Ben. He gives them information on their competition and protection from the law; they give him a percentage. Dennis appears to be the smartest person involved in all this business. As such, he cannot be exactly what he seems to everyone. What makes him special, though, is that he’s a real person. Travolta doesn’t overplay Dennis’s cards. He doesn’t gnash scenery as he has so often in the past. He’s a father of two daughters with a wife dying of cancer. This places his character in the real world as well as in the crime world.

I find it an interesting choice to have O narrate the story. Through most of the film’s running time, her voice over work seems completely unnecessary. It even comes across as redundant. It is written in perfect tone with her character, however. The problem is that her character is far from insightful, which is usually what voice over narration is reserved for. This works against the movie to a great degree, with many of her lines coming across as obvious and self-absorbed. But then something happens at the end of the movie that couldn’t without the story being told directly by one of the characters.

I won’t write something here to spoil any details about the ending of the film, but I will reveal a stylistic detail that some might wish they didn’t know about. So if you don’t want to know about the ending, stop reading now.

I don’t make it a habit to talk about endings of movies, but it would be impossible to discuss the success of this film without evaluating the filmmakers’ choice to have a false ending before the real one. This movie gives you two endings. Both endings embrace some form of cliché, but the real ending is much better than the false one, if you think about it.

The purpose of the false ending is to make the real ending acceptable for the audience. There’s an element of convenience to the real ending that would have the audience exclaiming, “Come on! Give us a break!” without the false ending that precedes it. The real ending is safer than the false one. The false ending is more typical of a crime drama. Stone first shows you the false ending and then has O tell the audience that while it was poetic, it wasn’t what really happened. I think seeing the more typical crime ending allows the audience to see how much more absurd that ending is than the real ending.

Despite dealing heavily in the clichés of the drug crime drama, “Savages” is made with style and great deliberation. The gritty subject matter feels like comfortable old shoes in Stone’s capable hands. Much of the film plays like a misstep because of the lack of insight to be found in the narration, but the double ending wouldn’t work without the narration, and neither ending would work without the other. Stone has put together a handsome film that delivers in what it promises, working with and against the conventions of its own genre.

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