Oliver Stone’s twenty-years-late return to his barn-burning, muck-racking, mutinous youth as a hit-the-fan molester of respectable cinema, Savages is both undeniably admirable and definitely worn and torn by the years of middlebrow cinema Stone exerted onto himself over the years. After expending the ‘00s on pointless, anemically respectable productions like W and World Trade Center, two of-the-moment “take me seriously” political films with none of the director’ momentous, ribald energy, Savages is a return to form of sorts. But the lethargy of lost time has set in a little bit, and the film’s ricocheting-but-not-undulating formal hassle sometimes feels like Stone overcorrecting for the staid, empty crucibles of his turgid ‘00s work by inducing their polar opposite: an undomesticated, totally neurotic rollercoaster. Less Stone at his best than a phoenix raised from the ashes of Stone’s aimless 21st century films, Savages is an intermittently great filmmaking blast of alacrity and elan, but it feels more like Stone-knew-a-guy than Stone himself.
At least Stone returning to his ‘90s self is justified in the narrative, which is by and large the tale of three sunny SoCal types who border on a certain level of 1997-era radness being drenched in the rust-and-acid bath of Stone’s jubilant crucible of excessive style. Stone, working from Don Winslow’s adaptation of his own novel along with co-writer Shane Salerno, stones these three stoners with a wash of excoriating, orgasmic viciousness. For Stone, the comforting realm of the middlebrow film is too reputable to excite or kindle a fire in his eyes; Savages, flawed though it is, is liberating in its disreputable demeanor, the result of Stone reentering his safety zone by pushing us over the cliff of ours.
In light of the film’s audio and visual accompaniments that derail the characters altogether, even the delusional, laconic voiceover in the post-Tarantino mode that opens the film also feels like a bait-and-switch. It signals not a too-cool-for-school film but a film about too-cool-for-school twenty-somethings who can’t be bothered to actually question their own identities. Lines like “I have orgasms, he has wargasms” and “Call me O, I was named after Ophelia, the bipolar basket case who committed suicide in Hamlet”, both delivered like a vacant sucking noise, signal Black Lively’s twee narration as an exile from reality, an apathy about human experience that Stone encroaches on by hurling irradiated cinematic dust in their faces, and ours. The poetic irony of the tragic heroine Ophelia slimily soured into the mononym O, a name befit for a surf-boarding tattoo-artist Buddhist who does slam-poetry by night, is not lost on Stone in a screenplay that treats the characters like high-school Shakespeare wannabes who are dumped out of the weed farm and into the fire.
The death of innocence and complacency is the diving board of the film, but Stone doesn’t so much thematize as inscribe all manner of ideas and tones onto the screen in blood-red, sugar-addicted, crayon-scrawl, a Bugs Bunny meets Tony Montana terror of disgruntled entropy that more or less visualizes the unfurling world of three white-bread types playing in a dangerous new realm. Cheekily shifting the “War for Oil” line about America’s War On Terror by trading out Black Gold for Panama Red, the film amusingly mocks Lively and her two weed-farming partners played by Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson for selling weed under the belief that it can help Third World inhabitants. Scenes of Johnson helping African children are filmed, pointedly, in the same glossy, sun-soaked images of the film’s Southern California to suggest that Johnson’s goody-two-shoes liberal never mentally escapes from his vainglorious, self-serving existence.
Eventually, the three are ensnared in turmoil with a vicious drug cartel headed by queen bee Selma Hayek (a sidewindeing cobra, a sultry stiletto wonderful in her apathetic villainy and ultimately emerging as the most tragic soul in the whole film) and enforced by Benicio Del Toro and Demian Bichir (a papa bear and a squirrel, respectively). Especially when the film gets to Mexico, Stone’s lurid excess, abetted by cinematography Don Mindel who thrashes the film in a washing machine of filters and grains, and a trio of editors who seem to have chop-shopped the film in a garage, feels like an apology for the trite, middlebrow continuity style he adopted ten years ago. But it also loses its way on both political and formal terms. Firstly, it carves out a hole where-in the body public of Mexico is linked to the drug industry, and secondly, the style overexerts itself into fell regions that are more show-off than carnival ringleader; the devilishly precise experimentation of JFK, Stone’s best film along with the under-seen Salvador, is nowhere to be found.
Which is to say, Stone’s best films complement the blasphemy of a heretical, out-of-control world by both exploring the gastric-distress of that bedlam and by pricking out possibilities of, if not escape, at least an outlet for coping. JFK and Salvador are, essentially, polemics and screeds, angry and rebellious films whose stylistic pandemonium felt like the only rational response to the insanity of the world around them. Mayhem and order, disgruntled misanthropy and ebullient possibility, all comingled in a swirling vision of the future as an existential void with no answer. The films crystallized not simply around boundless energy but around willful, thoughtful tensions and contrasts between an out of control world and people trying to impose sense onto those worlds.
In comparison to this partnership between youthful indiscretion and mature paranoia, Savages is usually flailing around with moxie but no purpose. Other themes, like the bifurcation of the modern male, pansexual liberation, and the incompleteness of monogamous relationships are flashes in a too-busy pan. Far be it from me to decry a film’s promise to try, but at some point, trying too hard becomes an omen of a film exerting itself into eventual torpor. Much like the molasses-thick, ominous Sicario, Savages proposes the Mexican Border as the current collision of freedom and establishment that once epitomized the frontier West with its cowboy gallantry and iron-fist aimlessness, but its assumption about where to go with this frontier – buddy comedy, noir, or political thriller – is never clarified.
Unlike Natural Born Killers, the one Stone film that went full-bore with the savagery and realized that head-first savagery itself could, with enough conviction, accrue its own kind of respect, Savages itself wants to be both respectable and disreputable. Imagine Natural Born Killers intermixed with JFK; one clawed purpose out of lurid savagery, the other began with purpose and then enlivened it with unhinged idiosyncrasies. One was a slovenly desecration of normalcy and the other a messy do-over of it. Savages wants to be both, but the results are more sloppy than energetically prismatic; we’re not watching a film with a polyvalent combat of different affective energies visualizing a certain non-cohesion in the world, but a film that is just throwing scenes at the screen for the hell of it. The film’s multitudinous name-checks from Robin Hood to Bono, which might have been a simultaneous embracement and parody of the two protagonists and their do-gooder ambitions, instead feel like a muddle of both. Savages spins mighty wheels, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still stuck there spinning them and nothing more.