Violence is one of the most common subjects found in movies, with much of the time the caveat seeming to be that because it’s “just a film” the handling of it is not as important as is entertaining the audience. Despite this flippant attitude however, some filmmakers have used the format to question the nature of violence and it’s relationship to the audience, and have had a profound effect on how we view it within our culture. Oliver Stone is not a stranger to this, with his landmark film Natural Born Killers striking deep at the parasitic relationship between violence and media, and his new film Savages, based on a book by Don Winslow, is at it’s most ambitious an attempt to show the downward spiral of violence and how the inability to behave like civilized persons eventually leads to ruin.
The story recounts the high times (yup) of marijuana growers Ben (Aaron Johnson of Kick-Ass fame) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch from Saturday Night Lights and the more recent John Carter) Who live in Laguna Beach and produce the finest ganja money can buy, with Ben’s philosophy guiding them not to get greedy and work only to make their customers satisfied.The third part of their equation is Ophelia (Who’s changed it to just “O,” being no stranger to the history that name carries in Shakespeare) who is an ordinary Cali girl except for the fact that she’s deeply in love with both of them.
They would be happy to continue with their lives, if not for the encroachment of the Baja Cartel led by Elena La Reina (Salma Hayek, From Dusk Till Dawn) and her sadistic head enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro) who wants them to partner with them. The two try and negotiate, and when that fails, outright decide to leave the business, but the BC isn’t about to let them go and persuade them to stay in the biz by kidnapping O. While Ben is desperate to meet their demands, the world-wearier Chon expresses doubt that they will let either of them go alive. “You can’t make peace with savages,” he says, and he’s right. The two also cross pass with Dennis (John Travolta) a double-dealing DEA agent who may have just the information they need to get O back. But in order to save her, they run the risk of becoming the savages they are fighting against.
Ben and Chon couldn’t be more of opposites, with O making the observation that “The only thing they have in common is me.” Chon is an ex-navy SEAL who came back from Iraq with a case of Non-Post-traumatic-stress-disorder and a handful of marijuana seeds they cultivated into an empire. Taylor Kitsch fills him with the sense of knowing that comes from seeing atrocities until they cease to be shocking; along with a grim humor that disguises his dog-eat-dog view of the world. Ben on the other hand works as a humanitarian abroad and though his travels have shown him the desperation of the less fortunate world, he’s still unprepared for the Cartel’s ruthlessness. Aaron Johnson captures a kid who is confronted by people so alien that he’s unable to reevaluate his philosophy and can only focus on saving O.
Blake Lively’s O is a smiling hippie girl offering endless love to her men, but is hopelessly lost in the world of brutality she becomes a prisoner to. Perhaps out of naivete, or out of hope, she connects with Reina, who sees a little of her daughter in her innocence all the while struggling to find a way to preserve the power her reputation has and being able to live with herself.
The most vicious character turns out to be the one most perversely fun to watch, Lado, played by Benicio Del Toro with cold eyes and a slimy mustache and jet-black pompadour like the star of a demonic Mexican soap opera. When he shows up at a guys house with a truck full of day laborers and asks whether he wants his grounds done, you can’t help but get a little chill from the casual menace he hints at.
Savages is bloody, violent, and yet maintains a strange air of distraction from it’s gruesome content, so that the film is not saturated with grimness, which is refreshing. It’s hard to say whether it’s because the film is too glib or the moral dilemmas are not meditated on, but it gives the experience on the whole sense of emotional dissatisfaction. We can feel for the plight of O, and Reina’s hardened soul, but we cannot empathize because they have little face-to-face human interaction (Many conversations take place over Skype), with Ben and Chon’s time together presenting us with the only one’s capable of reflecting on their actions, which they don’t have time do to.
It also makes a relevant statement with its depiction of the Cartel’s and how the need to expand their empire pushes them into closer contact with the states, and the bloody effects of that. It’s unsettling to imagine a couple of chillaxin’ Nor Cal growers getting roped into the deadly world of drug trafficking, and this gives it a feeling of realism even if It’s character’s don’t connect with us.
The film doesn’t suggest that the pair’s actions are any less justified than the Cartel, only that they pursue them for different reasons. The cycle of violence comes to a head in an ending, which, while maybe a bit gimmicky and too neat, proposes that while we are equally savages, we are all capable of overcoming it and being human as well.