The main problem with Savages is summed up in the way it blithely renders the big three — rape, torture, and murder — simultaneously seriously and inconsequentially. Its many horrors are perfectly serious to the characters participating in them, but totally don’t matter much to the movie itself, a safely shocking American revenge fantasy given a sheen of grungy violence by provocateur director Oliver Stone.
The story is about a trifecta of beautiful Laguna Beach surfers and pot growers too perfect to be anything but the over-designed constructions of screenwriters (Shane Salerno and Stone). Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is an ex-Navy SEAL whose PTSD doesn’t seem to affect the precision of his trigger finger. His best buddy Ben (Aaron Johnson) is a Harvard grad, Buddhist, hippie, and botanist with an unerring mind for business. They’re partners in victimless crime, and to be able to have so easily achieved their life’s goal — becoming millionaire pot kingpins wholly on their own terms — neither could have been dealt a better hand (by the very generous script, which renders them godlike wielders of their respective skills). Rounding out their trio is the woman they share, O (Blake Lively), a college dropout who loves them both equally, to the point of absurdity. Her dumbfounded look when confronted with the possibility that her two boyfriends might love each other more than her says everything we need to know about her character.
These Laguna pot dealers are meant to represent the promise of a sunny, capitalist world that’s sustained by necessary violence but guided by notions of peace. It’s a specious worldview that Oliver Stone would have us believe is the antithesis of the film’s encroaching threat to Chon and Ben. When the plot kicks into action and the duo are forced to rescue O from a torture-happy Mexican drug cartel looking to move in on the local pot trade, a battle of philosophies begins. It’s tempting to say that Oliver Stone is siding with Chon’s belief in justified violence because he indulges filmically in the razor-sharp, measured rage of the SEAL, the swirling, dipping, flash-framing visuals often driving the film. But while Chon believes in the god of carnage and Ben the god of peace, Oliver Stone seems to believe only in the god of scoring a hit movie.
Savages is ultimately about so much less than the neat duality it constructs: its’ a perfectly arranged fantasy of American dominance charged with a style that’s so desperate to seem edgy that no story could support all of its bells and whistles. Its characters are cartoonishly perfect archetypes: the SEAL is a great warrior with handy access to a cache of automatic weapons; the botanist can grow the world’s greatest pot; their girlfriend is sculpted, sexually voracious, and loyal beyond even the shallowest man’s wildest imagination; the gleefully vicious cartel enforcer who is sent after them, Lado (an astoundingly depraved Benicio Del Toro), has a soul so sick it manifests in his ashen skin, brittle, mulleted hairdo, and corrosive saliva. Their only purpose is to create the ultimate showdown — a bright, independent America on one side, the threat of a brutal, venal Mexico on the other. Stone was so concerned with keeping the one side sexy and thrilling and other disgustingly corrupt that he forgot to imbue either with life (save the all-out performance of Del Toro).
If you’ve paid attention to the advertising blitz surrounding Savages, you might have noted the hint of smugness in the faux-sagacious, upward-cast gaze on Oliver Stone’s face as he poses for press photos. His gaze, for me, aptly sums up the pretension of the whole film. “Something profound will overcome you when you see what I’ve made,” he hints with his self-satisfied look. “You won’t have seen hollow depravity ever put to such meaningful use.” Stone means for the audience to be aware that he’s ramping everything in Savages up to a feverish extreme on purpose, as if that would justify his indulgence in rape and torture for titillation, make them somehow more than the sum of their discomfiting effects. But if you look below the film’s easy, shocking artifice, it’s easy to see that Stone — once a master of this kind of hot-button, political style-fest — is full of shit.