‘Savages’ movie review: swift and brutal cartel tale from Oliver Stone

For about 90% of its running time, Savages is a rousing return to form for director Oliver Stone – at least, Stone in late 90s U Turn/Any Given Sunday mode, which is still a step down from the director at his peak. But after the disastrous Alexander, the maudlin World Trade Center, the gutless W., and the middling Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, this is the director’s best film in over a decade and (hopefully) marks the start of a comeback. 

But then there’s that final 10%, in which Stone manages to bungle not one, but two endings, literally rewinding the film a la Funny Games to show us “what really happened.” Neither endings are handled well, though one of them is closer to the nihilistic finale of the original Don Winslow novel. I just wish the director would have focused on getting one of them right and saved the other for the DVD.

Savages is both a gritty crime saga and an unlikely romance, focusing on pot entrepreneurs Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), and the lover they both share, Ophelia or “O” (Blake Lively). 

There’s no moralizing going on here, least of all in the marijuana manufacturing business (we’re expected to sympathize with Chon and Ben without reservation), but also in the love triangle; it’s almost refreshing to see the three leads portrayed in an healthy three-way relationship, even if we expect problems on the horizon.

Charitable Ben and ex-soldier Chon have been the ‘Ben & Jerry’s’ of the marijuana scene, churning out product with an exceptionally high THC content and distributing it along the California coast. Now ‘Wal-Mart’ wants in on the action: the Mexican drug cartel emails Chon a video featuring decapitated bodies and the warning that they better form a joint venture, or else. 

The drug cartel is represented by ‘La Reina’ Elena (Salma Hayek), who calls the shots from her luxurious mansion south of the border; the incredibly sleazy Lado (Benicio del Toro, wonderfully slimy here) carries out her orders in Los Angeles, which leads to a kidnapping and an escalation of violence. Corrupt DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) feeds Chon and Ben information as they try to wiggle out of an increasingly desperate situation. 

Savages is the second Don Winslow novel to make it to the big screen, after The Life and Death of Bobby Z failed to make much of an impact back in 2007. The screenplay, by Winslow, Stone, and Shane Salerno, is the film’s strongest asset: this is a compelling story, well told, with an intriguing view of the business side of the drug world not dissimilar to AMC’s Breaking Bad

Despite the sometimes-salacious material director Stone doesn’t revert to the stylistic excess of something like U-Turn or Natural Born Killers; he lets the actors do their thing and the story tell itself, and the audience is rewarded by this restraint. If only he carried it through to completion; that ending undeniably drops the ball, especially compared to the original novel. 

The young leads really shine. Following box office bombs Battleship and John Carter, this is the best quickly-fading star Kitsch has been. Co-star Johnson, on the other hand, is on the opposite career path; unrecognizable here following his starring role in 2010’s Kick-Ass, he gives a more nuanced performance and seems poised to really break out in the near future. Lively is, well, lovely.  

An excellent soundtrack features original music by Adam Peters, tracks by Bob Dylan, Massive Attack, and Thievery Corporation (among others), and some terrific covers, including Yuna’s lovely version of Here Comes the Sun and Bruce Lash’s jazzy take on the Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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