By Michael Calleri
Director Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” was released in 1994, and it still divides people.
“Natural Born Killers” is famed for its violent content. In fact, the movie was condemned by many groups and loathed by a large number of critics, which sealed its notoriety. As a fan of Stone’s work, I supported the film.
In 2006, Entertainment Weekly magazine conducted a poll of the “25 most controversial movies of all time” and “Natural Born Killers” finished in the eighth position. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion Of The Christ” was first. Numbers two through seven were Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Gerard Damiano’s “Deep Throat,” Stone’s “JFK,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation Of Christ,” and “D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth Of A Nation.” Numbers nine and ten were Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango In Paris” and “Elia Kazan’s “Baby Doll.”
What Stone was prescient enough to understand back in the mid-1990s (before YouTube, before Facebook, before Twitter, before everything else you either love or hate about the internet) was that the future of fame would belong to those who knew how to manipulate the media and create their own celebrity. With “Natural Born Killers,” he took two of life’s losers, dreary existential loners, paired them together, and gave them complete freedom to massacre as many people as they wanted. What was important in the context of the film wasn’t the tragedy of the victims, but rather, because Tabloid TV was at its zenith, how famous you would become on television. If they bring in high ratings, well then, television networks should venerate serial killers.
After a series of interesting, but generally so-so features, with “Savages,” Stone has returned to the drugged-out, very violent world that highlighted “Natural Born Killers.” Again, I am a fan of Stone’s work. I like his in-your-face style of filmmaking. I like his energy. I like his willingness to take chances. However, I am not overly supportive of some of his recent efforts. With a director whose work I like, I can find reasons to stay engaged. There are directorial signposts that are interesting. But, truth be told, I’ve lost track of how many versions of his meandering epic “Alexander” Stone has released on DVD. “World Trade Center” was an attempt to honor heroism, but it got bogged down by its own claustrophobia. “W.” was good, but nothing special, certainly no “Nixon.” The lethargic “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” seemed like nothing more than a craven attempt to capitalize on a better and greater movie, Stone’s important “Wall Street.”
His last four films all lacked something. I think it’s wrong to criticize a movie merely for being straightforward, but that’s what’s negative about all of them. Don’t get me wrong, Stone wasn’t slumming. With any of his features, you feel his passion. But these four lack complexity. They lack a visceral edge. They are all too safe. They don’t challenge the audience. If a Stone motion picture should do anything, it should challenge its audience.
Right from the beginning, with “Savages,” you sense that Stone is back where he belongs. He’s got the fever again. When Stone is successfully blending color and black and white and live-action and animation, as he does here, you know he’s a happy man. He also taps into what’s current. Have you noticed anything about American culture these days? If you’re paying attention, you have to be aware of an overriding element that dominates news and entertainment. It’s family. Not only traditional families, but also extended families. Gay and lesbian families. Reality show families. “Modern Family.” “Family values.” You can almost hear Sister Sledge singing “We Are Family.”
“Savages” is about belonging to a “family,” but the families depicted would be condemned by any moralists out there. If the greed in Stone’s Wall Street movies divided families (and broke their banks), and Alexander the Great just wanted to be loved as part of a family, and family members in “World Trade Center” were separated from each other, then the violence in “Savages” has the ability to destroy families. Stone and his fellow screenwriters Shane Salerno and Don Winslow, who wrote the novel on which the feature is based, understand that to control your enemy, to stop your enemy, you go after his or her family. It was once an unwritten rule in the world of crime that family members were untouchable. You also never took sides “against the family,” a guideline highlighted in “The Godfather.” Not any more. Not in “Savages.”
Times have definitely changed
There are two families in “Savages.” Neither is traditional. One is a “menage a trois.” Two good-looking male friends, Chon and Ben, share a happy life together with their equally good-looking and wealthy girlfriend, Ophelia. She’s a hippie, trippy golden girl, shaped by absent parents, pleasant drugs, and plenty of California sunshine. The trio live in Laguna Beach, which, if you’ve never been, is called, by many, paradise by the Pacific.
Oh sure, a lot of California communities claim to be “paradise by the Pacific,” but Laguna, as it’s called, considers itself the real deal. It has the feel of a beach community and the look of millionaires row. Its hillsides house the cream of the crop. If you don’t have a lot of money, you can’t possibly afford to live there. Much of the population has a job, but few of them seem to actually put in any hours, except perhaps those who work in its shops and restaurants, but even they seem touched by the sun-dappled glory that is Laguna. As you look at the ocean, you wonder: How many surf bums can one place have?
Chon and Ben work. Their business is growing marijuana. The best there is. Super premium. 33% more powerful than the marijuana being sold by Mexican drug cartels. When Chon and Ben aren’t supervising their vast marijuana empire, they are having sex with Ophelia, who is nicknamed O. The movie kicks off with a robust lovemaking scene that actually seems daring these days. Stone still knows how to draw in his audience.
O narrates the film, which she tells as if it were a cozy bedtime story. Chon is the angriest of the trio. He seems haunted by demons, perhaps a result of his service in Iraq, service that taught him a skill. Crime pays. But drug crime pays even better. Ben is an idealist. Every now and then he enjoys visiting Africa to use a lot of his drug profits to build villages for the poor and the oppressed. Blake Lively is O, Aaron Johnson is Ben, and Taylor Kitsch is Chon. Lively and Johnson give solid performances. They seem like mellow Californians to the core. Kitsch is good, but when his character is forced to fight, he lacks the absolute menace necessary to be fully believable.
Yes, they comprise quite a little family. They are opposites in background and composure, but as it’s been said, “opposites attract.” It’s an easy life for this threesome, made easier because, as O tells it, together they form a “perfect whole.” Can family life possibly be any better?
Into this reverie, danger arrives.
A Baja, Mexico drug cartel has taken note of Chon and Ben’s success. Seems that a lot of Californians would rather get high on pot with a 33% bigger punch. Therefore, sales of Mexican weed is down. Chon and Ben get an email with a video attached that shows a number of severed heads. The Baja folks demand a meeting and offer the American boys a deal. Share their product and receive much wider distribution of the stronger marijuana. Not quite clueless, but thinking like true businessmen, Chon and Ben wonder if the deal shouldn’t be more to their liking. They even discuss that the deal might not be worth considering. They seem a tad unaware that what the Baja cartel is offering isn’t actually something that can be negotiated. It’s not even a take it or leave it deal. It’s a take it or else deal. And the audience already knows what the “or else” means.
Meanwhile, there’s a corrupt Laguna DEA agent named Dennis, who looks the other way at how Chon and Ben earn a living. Of course, Dennis makes extra money the really old-fashioned way, he can be bribed. And he is. He’s got a Cheshire cat smile and a mile-a-minute gift of gab. He seems like a nice enough guy. He also has a family: some kids and a terminally-ill wife. Quite the philosopher, Dennis advises Chon and Ben that because the war on drugs is just another example of American lunacy, which only leads to more lunacy, they should take the deal. John Travolta is Dennis and you’ve got to hand it to the actor, he takes the part and dances with it. In perpetual motion, he’s pot-bellied and balding and fun to watch.
Chon and Ben reject the Baja offer and it’s here that “Savages” really kicks into high gear. Up to this point, the movie’s been a colorful lark. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll, indeed. Because of his innate talent as a director, Stone has always known how to frame a scene and how much dialogue is needed to advance the storyline. His visual sense is as good as anyone’s. Now, Stone has to deliver the goods, and does he ever.
Drama is conflict, and “Savages” enters a hellacious landscape. The film’s already fast-paced editing is ramped-up. Rejecting the deal angers the Baja cartel, which has enough problems of its own because of Mexico’s Federal police pressure, competition from other drug cartels, and the anarchistic nature of the current drug violence. No one is safe. The woman who runs the Baja family decides that Chon and Ben need to receive a strong message. Her name is Elena, and she is not to be played for a fool. She has O kidnapped. This act not only sends Chon into fits of anger, but it also stirs up his military training. Stone sends his movie into its carnage phase. Elena, war-weary and ruthless, is acted by a very good Salma Hayek wearing what looks like Uma Thurman’s wig from “Pulp Fiction.” She’s wonderfully sardonic. You enjoy listening to her ramble on and on about family and the difficulties one faces in keeping a business afloat, a common Stone theme.
There are some nifty plot elements here that I found interesting. The use of a Native American reservation as a location -- sovereign territory on United States soil -- is clever. And the fact that the Elena has a daughter of her own is a nifty touch especially when it’s made known early-on that the college-age girl hates her mother. Elena’s pressured on all fronts. She took control of the cartel after her husband and sons were brutally murdered. Her daughter is all she has left, and about that Elena says: “She’s ashamed of me, and I’m proud of her for it.” The irony is delicious. Elena’s a brutal thug who controls an army of brutal thugs, and in spite of the blood that flows, you actually care about her because of her shattered family.
Thanks to a computer wizard friend of theirs, sprightly played by Emile Hirsch, Chon and Ben have a number of avenues of attack at their disposal in their personal war to get back O, and that includes playing with Elena’s bank accounts and emotions. But they have to contend with a nasty assassin who works for Elena. He’s Lado, and as acted by Benicio Del Toro, even people in the audience should be afraid of him. Del Toro turns his character into a looming presence with a face that is jarring for the number of creases in it, creases that look as if they have been blackened with charcoal. He’s a demonic specter out of a Mexican horror movie. When he walks through a room, you can practically hear chainsaws buzzing.
Act three begins with Chon locked and loaded and Ben finding his inner warrior because of their devotion to O. Elena is watching her back and alternately becoming more motherly and even nastier than she was early-on. What happens will depend on which family has the greater determination.
Without revealing the ending, I’ll simply write that it’s a double-header. It’s possible that they are both hallucinogenic fantasies. Perhaps they are rooted in paranoia, or possibly the result of a drug-induced ennui that wraps itself around O, the narrator, like a cocoon. Who’s really dead? Who’s really alive? All of them? None of them? Is Laguna a real place, or is it an illusion made pleasurable because of a marijuana haze? Is the ending a visit to heaven after a stop in hell?
But perhaps the most important question that the engrossing and entertaining “Savages” raises is this: Has Oliver Stone become a romantic?