By Brian Lafferty
July 9, 2012 (San Diego) – Leave it to Oliver Stone to take sleazy, salacious, and lurid material and transform it into art. Very few filmmakers can make graphic violence so lyrical without pretension the way Stone does in Savages. On the surface the film is trashy, but if you look deeper, this trash has class.
Marijuana growers Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson from Nowhere Boy and Kick-Ass) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch from John Carter and Battleship) have it all. The massive profits gained from their unique product - the envy of every pot grower - allow them to live an illicit American Dream. They live in what looks like a million-dollar beach house, where they share a girlfriend, Ophelia (Blake Lively from The Green Lantern), better known as simply "O."
Their paradise crumbles when Mexican drug lord Elena (a barely convincing Salma Hayek) orders O kidnapped after the boys back away from a deal that she expected they would accept. Elena toys with Ben and Chon, who try everything they can to get O back, even if it means stooping down to their enemies' immoral level.
Whether it's in the comfort of their idyllic beach house or in the mean streets of Mexico, these characters inhabit a seedy, sordid world. Stone's lurid, pulpy script and visual style pervades every frame. He opens with an amateur video of several men bound, their gruesome deaths imminent. Stone then cuts away to the luscious Los Angeles paradise Ben, Chon, and O inhabit. The sweaty, lustful sex the three engage in is as sultry and steamy as the stiflingly hot summer weather.
The brutally violent script further elevates Savages from B-movie to A-movie. Numerous people are shot in the head at point-blank range, but the most violent sequence is when a man accused of betraying Elena is doused with gasoline and set aflame. That’s after he's whipped so hard and so much his left eye is gouged. Those accustomed to the recent spate of relatively bloodless crime action fare will be shocked at the high degree of brutality.
At the same time, the violence has lyrical, comical, and lurid qualities...often all at once. It's a treat to see a film director like Oliver Stone take violence to such a high aesthetic level. He executes every bullet to the eye with artful precision. After the initial shock of watching the bullet enter the brain - no matter how many times it happens, the shock level stays the same - the make-up guys, with their gruesomely realistic prosthetics and loads of fake blood, do their handiwork as the victim falls to the ground. It transpires fast in real time, but the temporal alterations of each shot make it feel longer than it is. In one execution-style slaying, Stone and cinematographer Daniel Mindel insert a shot filmed with an entirely different film stock to create this perceived temporal elongation.
For the most violent "burning man" scene, the aesthetics really present themselves. The whipping is loud and fierce. The camera lingers on the man's bloody face, his gouged-out eye hanging by its optic nerve. Even that optic nerve is strategically placed.
Each time the action moved to the paradisal beach house, I couldn’t help but think about all the surfers and beachgoers in the background. They have no idea that their neighbors are involved with one of the world's most dangerous criminal organizations, and that a war has spilled across the border from Mexico to their community. What if the same thing is happening here in San Diego and nobody is aware of it? That’s a scary thought.
Savages is currently playing in wide release.
A Universal Pictures release. Director: Oliver Stone. Screenplay: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, and Oliver Stone based on the novel by Don Winslow. Original Music: Adam Peters. Cinematography: Daniel Mindel. Cast: Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Benicio Del Toro, and Salma Hayek. 130 minutes. Rated R.