An Oliver Stone Retrospective in Savages
By Armond White
Oliver Stone’s cinematic command turns Savages, his 19th film, into a reconsideration of his entire previous oeurve. Its story of three white California-carefree young adults progeny whose post-hippie, post-yuppie initiative into the drug trade conflicts with a Mexican cartel recalls Stone’s past hits: the martyred youth Vietnam saga Platoon, the hyperbolic satire Natural Born Killers, the noir-sinister U-Turn and the drug dramas he wrote but did not direct Midnight Express, 8 Million Ways to Die and the epochal Scarface.
Stone is as much an aesthete as Terrence Malick, deliberately manipulating fancy cinematic grammar to stimulate viewers’ awareness. But he’s also politically attuned, a different motivation than mere “social-consciousness” which suggests a concern for contemporary issues of community interaction and public welfare. Stone, a political gadfly, likes to examine wayward social behavior, especially implicating his protagonists: The high-living menage a trois in Savages waste their privileges like trophy chick Ophelia (Blake Lively), their intelligence like Ben (Aaron Johnson) who devises high THC-level weed then barters it hypocritically, ignoring the mercilessness learned from warped military experience by his Afghanistan-vet partner Chon (Traylor Kitsch).
These spoiled products of their generation are contrasted with Mexican drug lords Lado (Benecio del Toro) and Elena (Selma Hayek) who also pursue privilege but with a ruthless, self-conscious sense of power; they’re hungry for what the Cali kids take for granted. It’s hard to think of another American movie that so sharply conveys the difference between the haves and have-nots. Stone doesn’t go for naïve Occupy petulance. In Savages, Stone depicts the cultural fallout of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the recent history of international disparity. He breezily, boldly outlines race, class differences but also the U.S. and third-world’s common ruthlessness. The sequence of Ophelia shopping at the Sun Coast Galleria unaware of the indulgent cartel princess–Magda (Sandra Echeverria)–alongside her is as brilliant as the earrings montage in Stone’s underrated Money Never Sleeps.
Both American and Mexican characters refer to each other as “savages,” uninterested in the corrupted mores they share. Stone dares to illustrate this cutthroat comedy with a prodigious cinematic wit, though toned down from his usual extravagance–leaving the avant-garde extreme to Neveldine-Taylor. Having already shot-the-moon in Natural Born Killers, he goes for a more mature, post-9/11 sense of horror–yet this is where Stone’s own aesthetic irony gets confused with his characters’ moral chaos,a genre glitch. (His double ending is less effective than the ironic endings of Death Race and Chronicle).
Still, Savages presents an exciting, principle satire of modern decadence. Unlike Ivory-tower Malick’s quasi-Biblical allegories, Stone charts evolving public mores. Johnson, Kitsch and Lively are strikingly perfect petulant types and Del Toro and Hayek only fall short of full tragic dimension–not their fault; their roles call for a different dramatic quality than Stone practices. Yet, Stone dares challenge his own previous statements about the extremes of political engagement among leaders (Alexander, Nixon, JFK, W.), civilians (Any Given Sunday, Scarface, Salvador, Talk Radio) and plebians of unique dedication (World Trade Center, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps).
It’s an unusual oeurve–oddly conscientious for this period of large-scale, unembarrassed escapism. In Ophelia, Ben and Chon’s fates, Stone muddles his sense of American privilege and opportunity run amok. Yet Savages’ study of arrogance as national character is amusingly epic. It evokes Westerns’ classic paradoxes: pleasure vs. satisfaction, business vs. idealism and with war movie metaphors (externalized psychic conflicts) all over the place. This abundance keeps Stone ahead of most of his contemporaries.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair