After both his Wall Street sequel and Hugo Chavez documentary flopped, critics seemed to be growing weary of director Oliver Stone’s championing of the political left. With his new film Savages, out Friday, Stone seems to answer by trying on an old hat that worked for his more visually-charged films U Turn and Natural Born Killers.
And now, Savages, based on Don Winslow’s novel, has been called misdirected, temporally uneven and lurid. The characters are little more than base archetypes. Not to speak of the story. The story is utterly impossible.
And still, there’s complaints about the politics. Stone’s voice hasn’t added anything new to the vitriol over the Mexican-US drug war.
A guy just can’t win.
Though he’s clearly made another post-modern flick Stone’s response is playful, and not entirely compliant. In fact, he seems to anticipate his critics with one-line from Salma Hayek. After an argument, Hayek hangs up the phone, and in a wide shot, alone in her kitschy bedroom, she sighs, “I’m getting old.” The chicana warlord speaks from under a black wig, but it’s really Stone there, turning tarot cards and switching off a black and white tele-novella.
Stone goes further in a recent interview. “The thinking on it is perverted. Do we ever learn anything from history?” The director is drawing a comparison between Prohibition-era legislation and that controlling marijuana today, but he’s also speaking to his audience who is neither interested in what he has to say, nor how he says it.
But rather than be a stubborn, geriatric auteur Stone gives the audience what they want but with a self-awareness and an elbow jab. It’s a contrasty romp, that completely embraces the full pastiche of cracking one-liners, goofy dichotomies and a cast of characters who are the victims of their own brutality and stupidity. It seems especially aimed at a crowd of young adults without being patronizing, and a reserved degree of self-depreciation. Stone’s humor is avuncular, never geriatric.
This dichotomy plays out no better than in the performances. Trained on television, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively and Aaron Johnson are three expressions of a generation of self-entitled kids with white-savior complexes played in a stoic, deadpan guised as realism. These kids are contrasted by the hyper-charged, and absurdist but controlled performances of John Travolta, who seems on the edge of insanity and Benecio Del Torro, whose brutality and stupidity mirrors that of Robert DeNiro as Louis Gara in Jackie Brown. Emile Hirsch, in a brief but tremendously funny bit plays Spin, a radical investment banker in bright O’neil swimming trunks. Salma Hayek gives her best in a dinner scene where “O”, played by Blake Lively, talks about living an insulated and whimsical life. In response to this sentiment, Hayek, whose favor “O” is trying to win over, seems to internalize the laughter the audience can’t contain. Again, it’s as if Stone is
speaking for himself. “You kids don’t know what you want.”
Ultimately, it is Stone’s ability to not take himself nor the opinion of his critics too seriously, that he succeeds in bringing something special to an often formulaic, sometimes flat summer blockbuster. If shakey, Stone is still on the mark and I’d love to see him return to this vein again soon.
Pot growers Ben and Chon face off against the Mexican drug cartel who kidnapped their shared girlfriend.