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?
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.
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.