A violent, drug-addled reworking of Star Wars is an authentic work by a controversial auteur but lacks the bite of his earlier films, argues Duncan Wu
Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, John Travolta, Salma Hayek and Benicio del Toro
Released in the UK on 21 September
Savages is such a violent film, you may need counselling after seeing it. You may even feel in need of a visit to A&E, having been (by proxy) drugged, strung up, whipped, then covered in liquid accelerant and set on fire. And that’s just the title sequence. Well, not quite. The first five minutes contain lots of exposition and a fuck scene, but the sight of freshly decapitated heads isn’t far off.
The narrator of Savages is Ophelia (Blake Lively), also known as O, a blonde Californian beach babe named after what she calls “the bipolar basket case in Hamlet”. But she doesn’t fall in love with a Scandinavian aristocrat, go to a nunnery or throw herself in a river. The one thing she does have in common with her namesake is that, as she tells us, “I might not be alive at the end of this story.”
With that discreet nod in the direction of Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ophelia describes her hedonistic lifestyle with two men, Ben and Chon (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch), business partners (both her lovers) who cultivate and sell the finest skunkweed in Southern California: as one of them remarks early on, “Drugs are the rational response to insanity.” Theirs is such a lucrative concern that it soon attracts the unwelcome attention of the Baja cartel in Mexico, headed by the matriarchal Elena, “La Reina” (Salma Hayek), which plans to absorb it into its international drugs operation - this being a fable about how small businesses get eaten up by multinationals.
Ben and Chon naturally seek career advice from Dennis (John Travolta), their friendly neighbourhood drug enforcement agent, who likens the Mexicans to Wal-Mart and tells them: “They want Ben and Chon in Aisle Three! The cartels are willing to go Henry VIII on this. Take the deal instead of decapitation.”
Good advice - but, inevitably, Ben and Chon disagree: being someone else’s peasant farmer was never part of their plan. Instead they book themselves and Ophelia a flight to Indonesia, but before you can say “spliff”, Elena’s psychotic enforcer Lado (Benicio del Toro) is showing them his unusual methods for persuading recalcitrant freelancers to climb on board. That is where the cage and the manacles come in. And the chainsaws.
Underneath the Laguna Beach setting, Savages is a nice old-fashioned story of betrayal. As Ophelia observes in the film’s closing moments: “Who really trusted who? I have no idea.” Structurally it’s a toked-up reworking of Star Wars(1977), with three protagonists (two men, one woman) doing battle with a Galactic Empire based, it so happens, in Mexico, with Benicio del Toro in the Darth Vader role. It is as if someone had taken the faux innocence of George Lucas’ prissy fairy tale and thrown it to their pet piranha after hijacking the narrative and injecting it full to bursting with blood, shit and sperm.
Savages is, in short, Star Wars reconceived by someone who dropped out of Yale University, did two tours of duty in Vietnam, was wounded and later busted on drugs charges - that is, rewritten by someone raised in the real world rather than in a department for film and media studies. Not that Savages is a purely cynical attempt to please the multiplexers - although that’s the market at which it is aimed - for this remains, at all levels, an Oliver Stone film. His paw-prints are everywhere, from its visual style, general approach (inappropriately operatic) and whacked-out witticisms (see, for instance, Ophelia’s comment on her GI boyfriend: “I have orgasms; he has wargasms”).
Even the film’s faults are typical of the man - it is too long (by about 20 minutes) and puffed up with its own carefully cultivated pomposity. But at least those flaws are Stone’s. One of the problems with Prometheus - another of this year’s films by someone commonly described as a “veteran” auteur (Sir Ridley Scott) - is its perfunctory manner, in large part the result of its colourless ensemble (with the honourable exceptions of Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba) and an especially weak performance by the passionless Noomi Rapace as the main character, Elizabeth Shaw. All of this indicates a lack of attentiveness on Scott’s part - unforgivable in a director whose dramatic instinct was once so sure.
The acting in Savages is certainly better than in Prometheus - although in itself that’s no endorsement. Johnson, Kitsch and Lively as the ménage à trois at the film’s heart are well up to the mark, although none is as memorable as del Toro, whose bouffant hairdo and whiskery grin makes him look like Bugs Bunny on crack.
Now in his forties, del Toro is one of the most compelling Latino actors of his generation: no one could have been so persuasive in the title role of Che (2008), Steven Soderbergh’s two-part biopic about the doomed revolutionary. Savages offers him fewer challenges than that outing: del Toro has always played maniacal villains and the principal demand here is to do so in Gothic attire - which he does superbly, although without doing anything he hasn’t done before.
Travolta, however, is a disappointment (although, given his recent form, not a surprising one). As usual, he acts as if from behind a triple-glazed window of complacency, walking through the part but without any sense of his character’s importance within the film’s argument. This is a shame because he has some excellent lines. “The forks are out, the pie’s gettin’ smaller,” he tells the boys when persuading them to go into business with the Mexicans. After they threaten to expose him to the press, he asks: “What happened to our mutually assured destruction thing? Hey, you know what? Get fucked, both of you!” just before one of them stabs him in the hand. “You fuckin’ stabbed a federal agent!” he shrieks. (I’m not giving anything away as this is in the trailer.) Engagingly droll stuff, even though Travolta lacks the gravitas to project himself as a ruthless, bloodsucking leech hanging off the backside of the narco culture he is paid to firebomb.
This is a serious problem because the film has no interest in condemning the Mexicans: La Reina and Lado are trying to make a dishonest living like the rest of us. All right, they make some inadvisable moral choices and have unpleasant ways of expressing their disapproval, but what can you expect? They are outlaws. Stone’s vituperation is reserved for the law-enforcement agencies, for which the rewards of collaborating with the drug cartels far outweigh those of bringing them down. Unfortunately, Travolta seems to inhabit his role without the self-awareness that would rub our noses in that grim irony, the result being that, unlike Natural Born Killers, Stone’s tabloid-baiting 1994 film that this in some ways resembles, Savages lacks bite.
Too bad its effectiveness as a shoot-‘em-up outweighs anything the film might have to say about the contemporary US, as that is the most important of the various elements that identify Savages as Stone’s. All the same, it contains enough of its director’s DNA to be more preposterous than most of its kind, despite its reluctance to countenance the depraved bleakness that gave poetry to The Doors (1991) and the lack of the hare-brained conspiracy-theorising that made JFK (1991) so compelling. It is as if the demented rat running around Stone’s skull had taken its meds and signed up for a law degree, or, as Ophelia puts it: “Living in the jungle’s fine, but where’s the toilet paper?”
Duncan Wu is professor of English, Georgetown University.