(MA15+) ★★★★✩ National release
O(MA15+) ★★★★✩ LIVER Stone’s career is an unusually interesting one, zig-zagging from the profound to the hyperbolic. He’s made three feature films about American presidents ( JFK, Nixon, W) as well as a documentary profile of one of America’s fiercest opponents, Fidel Castro ( Commandante). His searing critique of the Vietnam War, in which he reluctantly participated, won him kudos for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, and in his two films about corporate greed, Wall Street and its 2010 sequel, he attempted, with some success, to explore the dark side of capitalism. He was also the first American filmmaker to examine the human effect of 9/11 with the ambitiously distressing World Trade Center. Yet this is the same Oliver Stone who scripted ultra-violent thrillers such as Year of the Dragon and Scarface, and who directed the controversial Natural Born Killers; and let’s not forget that his first released feature in 1981 was a horror movie, The Hand.
The two Oliver Stones, the crusading and the extravagant, combine in Savages, a supremely well-made adaptation of a novel by Don Winslow. On one level this is a stark reminder of the power of the Mexican drug cartels which, according to the screenplay by the director in collaboration with the author and Shane Salerno, are more than capable of reaching across the border into the US to exert their own particular form of violent pressure.
The result, handsomely photographed by Dan Mindel, is a visually rich and very tense thriller — but it’s a bit more than that, because of the bleak sense of humour Stone and his collaborators bring to the material.
In all the recent talk in Australia about gender, it’s interesting to note that the head of the drug cartel featured in the film is a woman, Elena, imposingly played by Salma Hayek, and as ruthless as any man; it helps that her enforcer, a brute named Lado, played with lipsmacking enthusiasm by Benicio Del Toro, is a sadist who will do anything to achieve his ends. In contrast to these very nasty villains are the good guys, and here we find another indication that Stone is willing to play around with genre conventions. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are partners in crime, and their crime is the production of a particularly fine strain of cannabis, cultivated, by botanist Ben, from seeds that former Navy SEAL Chon brought back from Afghanistan.
From their luxury pad in Laguna Beach, these young men manufacture a brand of weed so potent as to give the word ‘‘ supergrass’’ an entirely new meaning. For Ben, the dope business is a green activity, a rational response to insecurity. It’s only a matter of time before Elena’s Mexican cartel hears about the stuff and wants a part of the action; and when their envoy is politely refused, the Mexicans make it clear they won’t take no for an answer.
There’s a further complication. Chon and Ben live in a menage a trois with beautiful, blonde O (short for Ophelia, ‘‘ the bipolar basket-case in Hamlet who committed suicide’’, as O herself explains as she narrates the film.) O is played by Blake Lively, and she’s very open about her relationship with the two men, explaining that ‘‘ together they’re one complete man’’ — she says a lot more than that, but it’s better heard in the context of the film. Sex isn’t something mainstream American cinema is very comfortable with or very good at depicting and the kind of kinky sex afforded by this three-in-a-bed scenario (it makes Jules and Jim look terribly tame) is unusual, though somewhat undermined because they seem to do it fully clothed.
O’s aforementioned narration is, at best, unreliable. She starts by telling us that ‘‘ just because I’m telling you this story doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it’’, and by means of this sort of disorienting approach Stone has fun with the genre, offering more than one ending. O, adored by both Ben and Chon, proves to be their Achilles heel.