Oliver Stone's 'Savages' Makes Drug War Ironically Enjoyable
“Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected," wrote the late great critic Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory. "Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends.” I can't think of a better framework for discussing Oliver Stone's latest film, Savages, which wants to be a sumptuously entertaining commentary on human corruptibility but is actually about the ironic relationship between means and ends.
The film starts with a pair of Laguna Beach hippie-nerd-pot dealers, Ben and Chon, played by Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch. After years of perfecting a strain of marijuana that yields a remarkable 33% portion of THC (the active ingredient in pot), Ben and Chon find themselves living it up with their lady love, O (short for Ophelia, played by Blake Lively). Yes, it may seem perplexingly queer that Ben and Chon are comfortable bedding the same woman, but the film adeptly foregrounds the implausibility of the arrangement and draws out various dramatic pathways — some sincere, some ironic, though none which, regrettably, really explore the homoeroticism of this equilateral love triangle.
In the dangerous and illegal world of dope-dealing, we learn, love is a liability, and before long O is kidnapped and held hostage by Elena (Salma Hayek), the ruthless matriarch of a Mexican drug cartel. More precisely, O is snatched up by Elena's minions, led mainly by Lado (Benicio del Toro) and Alex (Demián Bichir). Determined to save the woman they love, Ben and Chon start using everything in their power — namely money, guns, brains and friends in, ahem, high places — to get O back to safety, often compromising so much of their humanity that the question becomes, per Fussell, "Is this one girl really worth all this?"
In more ways than one, she's not. First off, O is kind of annoying. As Lado says when he first spots O chilling with Ben and Chon, she's little more than "some rich girl" with a lot of first-world problems. Her dad's a deadbeat. Her mom's a globe-trotting whore. All O really wants to do is smoke pot and bang one of either two best friends. And get this: she is kidnapped at the mall after apparently blowing thousands (of whose money, exactly?) on shopping bags full of designer clothes. O's out-of-touch privilege would be more tolerable if Lively (an ironic name, don't you think?) had thrown more spunk into the role — a bit more of that alluring fiestiness you see in actresses of her generation. I would have loved to have seen Lizzy Caplan, or even Lively's Gossip Girl co-star Leighton Meester, playing a hostage who drives her captors up the wall, but instead we get Lively's half-hearted whines and tears.
Hayek's performance, by contrast, is a tour-de-force. At once beautiful and matronly, harsh and vulnerable, wicked and worldy, Elena adds fire where Savages called for an extra kick. One dinner table scene between Elena and O stands out as incredibly satisfying not just because it's an unlikely meeting place for kidnapper and kidnapped, but also because Elena ravages O's raison d'etre. "There's something wrong with your love story," Hayek says with fierce condescension before suggesting that the reason Ben and Chon are willing to share O is because they don't care nearly as much about her as they do about each other. Ouch.
In Savages, the war is at first a drug war, then a war between families, and ultimately a war within a family, but at none of these stages does excessively graphic violence (of which there is plenty) seem borne of necessity. Such logical incoherence is less-than-transgressive in the action genre, but Savages is not just an action film. Its surprising sense of humor adds a Tarantino-esque levity that pulls the film out of some boring stretches. Savages is also one of those movies that considers its title to be so precious that the word appears in dialogue several times throughout the film, unnecessarily hammering in the idea that human beings behave in viciously undecorous ways when drugs, money and human attachments are involved — something most of us already know and are, quite frankly, tired of hearing.
Without giving away the randomly indulgent twist of an ending, I can tell you that Savages actually has two endings: one astutely aware of the kind of irony Fussell talks about, and one that would rather erase that awareness than conclude with it. If it's fair, as I suspect, to applaud the first ending while disdaining the coda of the second, then allow me to say that Savages is a film for which the means justify one end — but not both.