Savages, it's probably about time to stop caring. Because, at least formally, Savages kind of is that return: the first Oliver Stone narrative feature since the 1990s that looks pretty much like an Oliver Stone film: the energy that was completely absent from Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, W., and World Trade Center is back, and it's cinematically functional in ways Alexander never even thought about. It's got a kaleidoscope of different film stocks, and the distancing structure of a memoir, and lots and lots of violence filmed in a way that is neither exploitative nor especially subtle. It's an Oliver Stone film, all right; and a powerfully unmoving, unnecessary thing it is, too.
It is so much an Oliver Stone film, in fact, that it plays sort of like the marijuana-themed version of his screenplay for the 1983 Scarface. Sort of - mostly in all the bad ways, like how it's torn apart between critiquing or outright vilifying the lives of it protagonists and at the same time wallowing in how stupendously plush their surroundings are. Or not even really that, it's more like you can see, if you squint, what a cutting, satiric version of this story would look like, but in the event, Stone has mainly contented himself with creating a high-energy commercial for the lives of beautiful, entitled twentysomething drug lords.
The film, as adapted by Stone, Shane Salerno & Don Winslow, from Winslow's book, starts out with a piece of narration - the first line is "Just because I'm telling you this story, doesn't mean I'm alive at the end of it", thereby making it incredibly clear that the speaker will, in fact, be alive at the end of it - that gets the film off on the worst conceivable footing: for one thing, the speaker is a singularly blank young woman named "O" (Blake Lively), which she has cut down from the dour & Shakespearean "Ophelia" (I choose to read this is an homage to the ineffective Othello adaptation O), and it is with the most waterlogged of sinking feelings that we realise we're expected to anticipate the long, long time we're going to spend with her as our authorial voice with anything other than the dread of physically tangible boredom; for another, Lively's vocal performance is abysmally bad, deliberately stripped of affect in an attempt to give the film a sort of post-modern detachment, I imagine, but it really just sounds like she was a non-native speaker who learned her lines phonetically; for a third, the three writers, whose sense of dialogue is at all times fairly suspicious in its melodramatic largeness, give O some of the most unfathomably stupid things to say, and it seems awfully clear that we're meant to take this as literary or poetic or some such, and not the sign of a terrible undiagnosed brain trauma. At one point, she introduces us to one of her two boyfriends, a violence prone veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, thusly: "He was always trying to fuck the war out of him. I had orgasms. He had wargasms." I am paraphrasing the first part, but just by a little; anyway, it's the second part that puts in a strong bid for Worst Thing Said in a Movie in 2012.
That boy is Chon (Taylor Kitsch); her other boyfriend, and his partner, is Ben (Aaron Johnson). They are best friends and partners in growing and distributing what is held by connoisseurs to be the best marijuana grown in the States for certain, and probably in the whole world; and not only is there no jealousy between them over O, it would appear that vigorous and friendly threesomes are a regular occurrence in their lives. Indeed, one of the few genuinely interesting things Savages manages to do is predicate its entire dramatic structure on three-way relationship, presented unambiguously and almost idly as something we're meant to be totally in favor of. The drama, incidentally, is that a cartel based in Baja, Mexico, spearheaded by the icy Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek), wants to form a lopsided partnership with Ben & Chon's friendly, liberalish pot commune (Ben sinks most of his profits into projects in the developing world and is compared, teasingly but favorably, with Bono). When they decline, she goes batshit, having her thugs Lado (Benicio Del Toro) and Alex (Demián Bichir) kidnap O and hold her over the boys in a most nasty and villainous way; they, in turn, wage war on Elena's operation, and things get awfully complicated, so I won't describe any of it, except to say that even at 131 minutes, Savages is painfully over-stuffed and at the same time dreadfully slow-moving.
So from this grand messy scheme of dealing and double-dealing, of kidnapping and torture and execution, of close-knit threesomes and desperate maternal love, we get all sorts of themes that pop up and look like they're going to be developed: the obligation First Worlders have of doing good deeds in the Third World; the moral hypocrisy of those who talk about doing good in the Third World when they life like kings from the most obnoxiously overladen fairy tale; how a noble, pure thing like love can turn basically decent people into monsters to preserve their loved ones; how we all use words like "savages" to demean the people we don't like because we think it gives us ethical authority over them; how you, like, shouldn't trust Mexicans, because they're, for serious, all in the drug trade, man. Politically laden words and phrases skip across the screen like a Where's Waldo puzzle for The Nation subscribers, because Oliver Stone makes Serious Movies About the State of Things.
None of this ends up taking hold, possibly because there's simply too much going on to hang onto any one thing for very long (and maybe that's supposed to be reflective of how crazily out of control the situation ends up for the protagonists, but it's not even satisfying then), and certainly because Stone tries to hang this grand operatic course of events and deep human emotions around the necks of three woefully uninteresting characters, played by Lively and Johnson as complete ciphers, too fuzzy to have any personality besides the clichés they represent - Kitsch manages to outshine his two co-leads by a huge amount, and thus carve out a bit of dignity for himself in a summer that has been inordinately bad for him so far, but being the best of a triangle involving such consistent nonentities as Blake Lively and Aaron Johnson isn't the kind of thing that sends a young actor to bragging.
The movie makes some feints at calling them out on their bland, rich-kid shit, but then not really, and the film sort of glamorises their lifestyle and tries to distract us from the fact that they are criminals by arguing that marijuana is probably going to be legal really soon, so they're just ahead of the curve. And also by disastrously name-dropping Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, because those people were also glamorous, gorgeous law-breakers - that they were played by better actors and given better things to say in a more entertaining plot is something we are presumably meant to ignore.
We are, in effect, being given a serving of lifestyle porn built on an "I would do anything for love" scenario with a violent drug-trade thriller wrapped around the edges; and it's the edges where the film comes to life, whether because Elena and corrupt DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) are the two most complicated and well-played characters in the movie (that Hayak and Travolta handily outclass Del Toro and Bichir tells us most of what we need to know about the kinds of figures the latter pair are given to play), the only moments where there's any insight into how people work anywhere in the whole project, or because Stone is at his best as a director when he just gets to play with the medium (and that, at least, has been true pretty much as long as he's had a career). A lengthy action sequence involving a raid on one of Elena's safe houses is unabashedly terrific glossy thriller filmmaking; the way that Stone and cinematographer Dan Mindel capture Southern California beach life as bright color and hard sunlight and a bunch of flat surfaces is the closest the film comes to actually commenting on the things its depicting, rather than just depicting.
It's not the work of an untalented man, then; but even worse, a talented man with no direction or shape for his talent to work. For good or ill, the Stone of the late '80s and early '90s was driven and purposeful, and even his flightiest conceits all came from a place of intense conviction. Savages is a film that doesn't know why it exists, and therefore can't even be appealing as empty action, because of the lingering relics of it trying to be serious and meaningful. It goes everywhere and gets nowhere. That would be annoying in any movie; it is dumbfounding from such a message-addled director as Oliver Stone. But what could you expect at this point?