Has the drug world changed so much since Oliver Stone’s seminal romance, Scarface (1983)? The story of one man’s love for money, pussy and power (and cocaine) was a blood spattered valentine to immigrants and entrepreneurs everywhere. With Savages Oliver Stone takes us on a more homegrown adventure: The independent American pot grower cum businessman. The film is bright and slick and about thirty minutes too long but it is a more intriguing ride than you might expect.
On its surface Savages seems to cater to genre expectations with an explicit decadence. And yet it subverts them at almost every turn, making it at once a provocative flicker from a master director and a deconstruction of the very drug-action-thriller he helped to create.
To go into the finer points of all the characters and plot switcheroos of Savages would take too long, so I will simplify by saying that it concerns the partnership of humanitarian Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and war vet Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and their singularly sticky ick: Afghanistan marijuana with a THC level of 33%. This makes their independent enterprise a stiff competitor to the 3-5% Mexican brand controlled by the Baja cartel, a multi-million dollar monster run like a multinational business and headed by Elena Sánchez (Salma Hayek). As their friend and bribe-taker on the DEA Dennis (John Travolta) explains to them, they’re Wal-Mart. And when the cartel offers to merge with Ben and Chon, Dennis advises the boys “not to fuck with Wal-Mart.”
Needless to say, Ben and Chon fumble the deal and the cartel hits them where it hurts by stealing their one irreplaceable possession: Their girlfriend Ophelia (Blake Lively). Yes, their girlfriend. She loves both men and they love her. Equally?
There is so much happening in this movie and the small details that make it up are fascinating to puzzle over. The architecture of Ben and Chon’s legal and illegal business is laid out in detail as well as how they crunch their numbers, how the cartel operates and the finer points of government hypocrisy. And there’s no way I can do justice to the extreme odiousness of Lado, played by Benicio del Toro at his wicked best. The movie is ripe for deeper analysis.
But the most salient attraction is our trio of “protagonists”: Ophelia, Ben and Chon. Ben and Chon are Ophelia’s men; in her words Chon is earth (cold metal, raw power) while Ben is wood (warm and smooth). When she and Chon “fuck” Ophelia has orgasms; Chon has “wargasms.” When she and Ben “make love,” they become one spirit. Ben and Chon for Ophelia represent two halves of one perfect man. But as Elena points out, there is no way the trio have an equal partnership. The only way they can share Ophelia is if they love each other more than they love her (the film teases this sexual narcissism at several points but never delves deeper).
And then there is Ophelia herself, shortened to O. And I need not go into all the prurient connotations that simple letter conjures to get to the essence of what Ophelia is to the boys. Do Ben and Chon truly love her? Oh, undoubtedly. But what is that love compared to what these partners share and share in her? Oliver Stone knows that a naked Blake Lively in the throes of passion is a sure draw for his sex and violence audience but it is a credit to the actress that she understands what Ophelia is and does not try to lend her greater depth. Ophelia is a rich white girl born and raised in Laguna Beach who has been smoking weed since she was in 8th grade. That does not make her any less of a human being but her desires, her thoughts and her romantic notions are purposefully portrayed as innocently superficial. It is even possible that Ophelia needs the boys more than they need her, for how else can she exist without the attention they bestow that all previous family withheld?
In his review Roger Ebert said that this is a movie with no good guys, just bad guys who are better than the other bad guys. That is very true. What it also does is raise valid points about marijuana trafficking. No matter how laid back your feelings on the weed, the escalating violence surrounding the narcotic is just as bad as Scarface’s Columbian terrorism. In a way Savages is the twenty-first century counterpart to Scarface, showing what ingenuity and business acumen can do for American natives and how, in the end, it doesn’t matter what country you’re from, it’s how much pain you can bring down on the other side. If O is the innocent caught in the middle is all the pleasure she receives worth the pain?
Every side of the conflict calls the other savages at some point in the film. They all are. So is Oliver Stone, so am I, and if you watch this film, so are you. The ticket price for grace is nowhere near as exciting.
Based on Savages by Don Winslow
Directed by Oliver Stone
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