Excuse Me While I Light My Spliff: Oliver Stone’s Savages
Posted July 10, 2012on:
The oddest thing about Savages, the new Oliver Stone movie, is the central love triangle. Ophelia (Blake Lively) lives and sleeps with two men: the war veteran Choan (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben the Buddhist botanist (Aaron Johnson). In the film’s first 10 minutes, she has steamy sex with both guys –and nobody minds. The trio’s laissez faire attitude reminded me of an Amy Bloom short story, in which a mother confesses to her daughter that she has a lover whom her husband accepts, saying “Love is not a pie.” In other words, love is not a zero sum game, with a finite number of slices to eat.
Then again Stone has never cared much for domestic drama. In the 22 movies he’s directed in nearly 40 years, he prefers the flashier conflicts of war, violence, terrorism, politics, and business, from his Vietnam trilogy (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth) to his biopics (JFK and Nixon and W. and Alexander) to the classic Wall Street and its sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleep to the 9/11 drama World Trade Center. In Savages, Stone returns to Latin America, which he treated in the war drama Salvador and the documentaries Comandante and South of the Border, about Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. But among Stone’s prior work, perhaps the closest analogue to Savages is Natural Born Killers, a Bonnie and Clyde story where love speaks in bullets. Stone also takes a page from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film the characters discuss in a moment of pure inside baseball. As my documentary filmmaker brother says: Hollywood loves to make movies about movies.
Stone has taken heat for his overtly leftist sympathies and Savages may not calm that critique. The heroes are marijuana growers who operate in the open under the protection of California’s medicinal marijuana laws. Then again, Stone is no starry eyed idealist, imagining a world where everyone gets high and it’s all legal and groovy. The seemingly benign drug trade quickly turns violent when the Laguna Beach dreamers run afoul of a Mexican drug cartel led by the icy bewigged Elena (Selma Hayek) and her sleazy, bumbling lieutenant (Benicio del Toro). Like Roberto Bolano in 2666, Stone is fascinated by the violence of the drug trade, implicitly acknowledging how much the world has changed since the era of Kennedy and Nixon. Politicians are irrelevant, off-screen puppets in Savages; the cartels hold the real power. The only law enforcement is a DEA Agent, played cartoonishly by John Travolta.
Yet despite his career-long critique of American power, politics, and greed, Stone now comes across as a patriot, if not a xenophobe. Savages waves the Red White and Blue by pitting lovable American outlaws against unlovable Mexican outlaws. There are token attempts to humanize the Mexicans: a teenage lieutenant (Diego Catano) who bristles at violence, the Hayak character’s daughter (Sandra Echevarria), and a tortured family man (Demian Bicher) And the title –and complementary dialogue– suggests that both sides are the savages. But overall the film implies that Mexicans are ruthless by choice; gringos are ruthless by necessity.
As a two-hour piece of visual entertainment, Savages is a simpler story than a novel like 2666 or a recent New York Times Magazine article about how Sinaloa, a Mexican cocaine cartel makes its billions. But the central point is the same: drug cartels are as rich and ruthless as multinational corporations, as powerful as governments, and as destructive as either one. While it’s easy to condemn Latin America, the Times article cites Justice Department estimates that Mexican and Columbian cartels sell $18 to $39 billion annually in the U.S. Beyond the numbers, drugs are so culturally acceptable that in the new Seth MacFarlane comedy Ted, Mark Wahlberg and his talking teddy bear smoke weed and snort coke –and it’s supposed to be funny. Based on the dead bodies and destroyed lives in Savages, Stone might disagree.
Keith Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent film reviews include a comparative analysis of Moonrise Kingdom and Ted, a comparison between Brooklyn artists and the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, and the music documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America. He saw three movies in the theater last weekend, more than he did in all of 2011.