Oliver Stone approaches every film he makes as if it's the biggest, most important movie that will ever be made on the subject. When he's working with material to match his grand vision—JFK, Talk Radio, Nixon—he can produce hallucinatory film experiences.
But when he isn't—especially of late—you can sense his frustration. Not that he tones down his approach when he's filming an "ordinary movie." Instead, he guns the engine, steers for the cliff, and hopes he survives the impact.
Savages is one of those gun-the-engine efforts. It's not a commentary on something personally important to the director. It's a ridiculously overblown, wildly violent, amoral thriller involving Mexican drug cartels, vicious killers, and hot babes. Mickey and Mallory, the blood-and-sensation-crazed protagonists of Natural Born Killers, would love it.
Based on a 2010 novel by Don Winslow, Savages concerns a love triangle between Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch), and O (Blake Lively). Living out in sunny Laguna Beach, California, the three have an open sexual relationship with each other: O loves Ben because he's a soulful lover, and she loves Chon because he screws the hell out of her. The guys love O because she's sexy, not because Stone gives her anything resembling a personality.
Ben and Chon, best pals, have a very successful pot business, which attracts the interest of a murderous Mexican cartel. Elena (Salma Hayek), the cartel boss, wants to join forces with them. When they decline, she kidnaps O and threatens to kill her if the guys don't change their mind.
Like science fiction or fantasy films, Savages works in a realm of unreality. Just about everything in its 130-minute running time is pitched at a level of heightened pulp. You don't see just one decapitated head early on—you see several. There aren't any white-knight heroes; there are merely some less-horrible individuals who kill fewer people and seem somewhat upset about the carnage they're unleashing. Unlike, say, Drive, which amplified its violent moments by adopting a cool, detached tone, Savages exudes Stone's go-go-go exuberance, as he luxuriates in his characters' antisocial behavior.
His cast is on the same page. Savages is a test case in how close actors can get to going completely over the top without embarrassing themselves. (By comparison, watch how hopelessly lost everyone in Stone's loopy U Turn looked.) The three leads are restrained—Johnson is the Sweet One, Kitsch is the Temperamental One, Lively cries a lot—but everyone else around them has a ball doing his or her own version of a Tarantino badass.
John Travolta sweats and swears and fast-talks as a shady DEA agent, while Benicio Del Toro relies on his quiet, foreboding presence to play a dumb, hair-trigger thug who's most dangerous because he's sure he's pretty smart. And Hayek's Elena seemingly draws inspiration from real-life Miami cocaine kingpin Griselda Blanco, throwing tantrums, ruthlessly ordering people's deaths, and worrying over her estranged daughter. Nobody in Savages resembles a regular human being—everybody's playing characters you only see in other movies—but the vibrancy is a treat. Stone has encouraged his actors to embrace the hyperbolic desperation of their milieu, and the result is a film that's both overcaffeinated and tightly controlled.
Savages doesn't offer much beyond your typical revenge plot, but it's a major step up for Stone after other purely commercial movies he's tried to make. U Turn was a disastrous genre parody, while Any Given Sunday looked like it was made by someone who had never watched an actual football game. A lot of auteurs occasionally do a straight-up studio job in order to pay the bills or stay relevant, but Stone appears to be wholly incompetent at phoning it in. If he doesn't feel the movie down to his bones, he just can't do it right.
Savages smells like another studio job, but this time Stone has managed to hook into his story's worldview, sucking every ounce of marrow he can. Amid all the violence and profanity, Stone reveals a begrudging respect for his damned characters. Early on, O starts talking to the audience in the sort of faux-jaded voice-over that's meant to suggest the kind of hard-earned wisdom and casual amorality that us regular schmucks in the audience are too square to ever experience in our real lives. Stone knows he's peddling us a fantasy. For once, though, he seems happy selling out.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.