The 19th-century historian Frederick Jackson Turner described the Western frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” That frontier is long gone, and the meanings of those words have changed, but the West — California in particular — still thrives in the popular imagination as a place where wildness and refinement, law and violence, inferno and Utopia collide and commingle.
The more salient border, in politics and pop culture, is the southern one, between the US and Mexico. One of the jokes in Savages, Oliver Stone’s feverish, fully baked, half-great adaptation of Don Winslow’s ferocious and funny drug-war novel of the same name, is that the film’s title is flung back and forth between north and south — an epithet that is also eventually claimed as a badge of honor. The Southern California marijuana dealers on one side of the conflict that energizes the film’s zigzagging narrative are appalled by the brutality of the Mexican narco-traffickers, for whom torture and mutilation are routine ways of doing business. Some of the Mexicans, in turn, are disgusted by the sloth and shallowness of the gringos, who seem to lack any sense of dignity, tradition, family or honor. Savagery is in the eye of the beholder.
Both sides have a point, though prejudices and blind spots make clear judgments doubtful. The judgment of the American weed merchants may be further clouded by their continual violation of a basic rule laid down by Stone back when he wrote the screenplay for Brian De Palma’s Scarface: Don’t get high on your own supply. (They also ignore another Scarface rule: Never underestimate the other guy’s greed.)
Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), best buds who grow the best buds on the planet, never think twice about sampling their own wares. Nor does O, the movie’s narrator and the hypotenuse of a happily triangular domestic menage. Played with radiant vagueness by Blake Lively, O explains a lot to us, about her own household and the world beyond it. Her real name is Ophelia, and the nickname suggests, among other things, a certain emptiness. But Stone and Winslow (who collaborated on the script, along with Shane Salerno) don’t quite make her into a caricature of vacuous rich-girl blonditude. Instead they allow O to pursue and to represent a version of the American dream that is open to reverence as well as ridicule. She has everything she wants, and why shouldn’t she?
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Starring: Taylor Kitsch (Chon), Blake Lively (O), Aaron Johnson (Ben), John Travolta (Dennis), Benicio Del Toro (Lado), Salma Hayek (Elena), Demian Bichir (Alex) and Sandra Echeverria (Magda)
Running time: 131 Minutes
Taiwan release: Today
Ben and Chon are the equal and opposite loves of her life, while she is, in her own words, “the only thing they have in common.” Chon is a combat veteran, whose tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan have left him cynical and suspicious, as well as tactically adept when it comes to dealing with trouble. Ben, a Berkeley graduate, is sensitive and soulful, the poetic yang to Chon’s warrior yin. Together they satisfy O and run a lucrative business, which Ben enhances by “going all Bono” and putting some of the profits to global do-gooder use.
O, a kind of transcendental housewife, describes their hillside home in Laguna Beach as paradise. Stone affirms this appraisal with sweeping, sun-drenched shots of the water, the sky and the golden bodies of Lively and her co-stars, who snuggle together like blissful, exceptionally well-proportioned kittens. This director has about as much use for visual austerity as O and her pals would have for a W-2 form, and at times in Savages he seems intoxicated by beauty almost to the point of distraction.