Stone’s lush compositions and suave camera movements may surprise — and maybe offend — fans of Winslow’s lean, flinty prose, but the sumptuousness of the movie is among its chief delights. Some familiar Oliver Stone tics are evident, notably his impatience with any single format or color scheme. Sometimes he shifts to black and white or to Webcam and cell phone video, but the effect of this kind of scrambling is not as jarring as it used to be. Back in the days of JFK and Natural Born Killers such techniques made him seem like an especially manic postmodernist, but now that collage and rapid-fire editing have become more common (and less interesting) cinematic features, he turns out to have been a classicist all along.
And also an incurable cinema romantic. Savages is a daylight noir, a western, a stoner buddy movie and a love story, which is to say that it is a bit of a mess. But also a lot of fun, especially as its pulp elements rub up against some gritty geopolitical and economic themes. Rather than grandstand about these, the filmmakers embed them in a story full of ambushes, betrayals and bloody reprisals, mostly carried out by an especially vivid cast of villains and double dealers.
You will be glad to see these characters. The thing about spending time with potheads is that if you’re not stoned yourself, it can get kind of dull, and Ben and Chon, cool as they are, are not always scintillating company. O seems to run a bit deeper than either of her paramours, but the crazy, jangly life in this movie comes from John Travolta as a dirty D.E.A. agent, Benicio Del Toro and Demian Bichir as midlevel criminals, and above all Salma Hayek as Elena, the ruthless queen bee of a Mexican cartel.
You don’t want plot summary. The story does what such stories do, with sufficient ingenuity to keep you engaged and digressions that make the movie feel bigger than the sum of its events, some of which (be warned) are extremely grisly. It is, at bottom, a fable of business dealings gone wrong. Elena’s company wants to gobble up Ben and Chon’s start-up, and while the terms seem generous, the boys are skeptical. Ignoring their D.E.A. pal’s warning — “Don’t mess with Walmart,” is one of several choice lines bestowed on Travolta — they end up in a nasty fight to save the enterprise and also O, whose kidnapping gives the game a personal stake. And for Ben and Chon’s enemies too, it turns out that nothing is ever just business.
From the beginning O warns us that she may not be alive at the end, even though she is telling the story, and her blithe comparisons of Chon and Ben to Butch and Sundance (with herself in the role of Katharine Ross’s Etta Place) foreshadow a grim conclusion. What happens is more complicated, and may displease some of Winslow’s readers. The way the movie ends can be seen as a cop-out, but I think of it more as a sly commentary on the kind of stories American movies love to tell, and also on the nature of our appetite for those stories.
Savage? Civilized? We’ll take some of each, thanks. Like O we’re glad to have it both ways: rough and sweet, cynical and naive, champion and underdog. We want everything, all the time, including our innocence.