Review: Oliver Stone turns Johnson, Kitsch, and Lively into ‘Savages’

A few weeks ago, I published a piece about the book “Savages” by Don Winslow, the inspiration for Oliver Stone’s new film that arrives in theaters next week, and I said in that piece that I hoped his sensibilities would mesh with the material in a way that provoked great work from this long-dormant giant.

While I don’t think “Savages” represents the very best that Stone has ever committed to film, I also think he’s a different guy, looking at something that he would have shot one way in 1995, and he’s reacting to it in a different way.  Stone reveals himself in the one major choice where the film is different than the book, and in what has to be the most shocking thing Stone could add to his repertoire, he’s gone every so slightly gooey.  He loves these dumb, lucky, beautiful kids, and he’s rooting for them every step of the way.

Stone hasn’t always loved the losers he has immortalized, but he has been fascinated by them.  When you look at “Salvador” or “Platoon” or “Born On The Fourth Of July” or “JFK,” these lead characters are men who are pushed to some moral breaking point, some character defining extreme, and they all crumble before they rebound, if they rebound at all.  Jim Garrison is the “hero” of Stone’s “JFK,” which is sort of radical in the very notion because Garrison’s legacy is a whole lot of failure and conjecture, a rabbit hole of crazy that may well obfuscate some genuine truth that he helped uncover as well.  Who knows?  Who can know at this point?  Stone loves Garrison and sees him as a hero not because he accomplished anything but because, no matter what anyone else or common sense said, he tried.  And that, more than anything, is what Stone respects and idealizes.  That determination in the face of everything.

“Savages” tells the story of a perfectly-balanced love triangle between Chon (Taylor Kitsch), Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Ophelia (Blake Lively), who everyone just calls “O.”  Ben and Chon sell marijuana.  Well, they grow it, actually, and on a massive scale, running a major operation that has been scientifically fine-tuned to produce jaw-droppingly powerful medical-grade marijuana that is both sold in California through regular collectives and shipped overseas at a much higher price.  They do well for themselves, and it allows them to live the lives they dream of living.  Ben travels around the world doing charity working, finding meaning in the hands-on help of others.  Chon keeps an eye on things and takes no shit from anyone.  He is the hard edge that Ben never ever has to be, and that’s the way it works between them.  They understand those roles, and they both admire that about the other.  Chon went to Afghanistan.  He killed.  He survived.  And he brought home the seeds that Ben used to start building their empire.

O is a tough role.  She’s the narrator of the movie, and she spends a good deal of the film with no direct knowledge of anything we’re watching, and she’s defined as a sort of empty shell of a person, not terribly attractive on a personal level no matter how she looks.  Lively has a tough part to play, and in conversations I’ve had with several other people after seeing the film, she has very vocal detractors who seem to respond at an almost physical level, hating her voice and her presence so much that it cripples the film.  I think Lively’s work is smart and sad precisely because she plays O as such a broken, needy little soul.  The moments where she cuts loose with Ben or with Chon are the moments she feels like she contributes something to the world, to their world, and it defines her.  The fact that she’s with both of them equally, that she can keep them both balanced in her heart, that’s what she’s proud of, and that is not necessarily someone I admire, or that I think the film admires.  But it’s a character with real kinks and bruises, and I like what Lively does with it.  The film shot but deleted her relationship with her mother.  She talks about her mother in the film, but we never see her, and I think that’s something that defines these rich southern California kids.  I’ve met so many of them in the time I’ve lived here, kids who grew up with money and every advantage and who are totally without any drive or determination.  O is defined by the lack of family that she comes from, by this absentee parenting, where money and privilege stand in for affection and human contact.  She needs Ben and Chon both because she needs to feel that wanted, that she’s so much person that no one man can contain her.  When she is pushed to the breaking point in this film, I think part of the humiliation, part of the real scar that is left on her, is the way she is suddenly reduced by Lado (Benicio Del Toro), crushed down into less than a person, into some caged something, some broken-winged used-to-be.  Lado can see who she is, and he knows how to hurt her in ways other than physical.  It’s deeply unpleasant as played between them, but it’s meant to be.

Ben and Chon are, of course, the main driving forces of the film, and both Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch seem to be tuned in to the same crazy frequency, and the bond between them, the give and take of their dynamic, seems not only credible but lived in and authentic throughout the film.  I think Johnson is maturing quickly on film, and the sheer difference between his presence in “Kick-Ass” and his presence here would make it seem like a decade or more has passed since that first film.  Kitsch may well save his career with his work here, because I think this is how you should use him as a filmmaker.  You cast him with an ensemble around him, and you get him to play hard, to play intense, and you cast people who are going to push him or challenge him in scenes.  Say what you will about John Travolta, but I think his post-“Pulp” career has been marked by some really remarkable and knowing work, tweaking his own iconography while also indulging his interests and his strengths.  Sure, he’s made some awful missteps, but he’s also done some really great, hilarious work, and he’s pretty grand here as Dennis, a DEA agent who’s padding his pocket with contributions from all interested parties, a situation that seems to find him in increasing trouble over the course of the movie.  Is he helping Ben and Chon?  Is he working for Lado?  Is he faithful to Ylena?  It’s something that didn’t really work this way in Winslow’s book, but the script by Shane Salerno, Winslow, and Stone streamlines things in favor of momentum, and it really works.

Ylena is played by Salma Hayek, and she’s based on some real women who found themselves successfully running drug cartel families out of Mexico during the past decade’s bloody, savage drug war on the border.  It’s a great role for Hayek, and she plays it with some big operatic choices and gestures that pay off.  Del Toro’s Lado is her main henchman, but he may be working more for himself as the film wears on.  The way he plays games with everyone, the physical details of his eyebrows and his moustache and his eyes… this is a scary piece of work.  Demian Bichir and Antonio Jaramillo are good playing middle management guys who reach out to Ben and Chon on behalf of Ylena.  The entire cast does what they’re called upon to do with a sort of fever-pitch intensity, and it feels like a choice Stone made that everyone’s playing.  One of the reasons I really like the movie is because, love it or hate it, everything about it feels like Oliver Stone made a decision, and this is the best expression of the emotional cavalcade of Winslow’s prose on the page that he could come up with, a way of trying to make an audience feel the way it feels to read Winslow’s words.  It feels like a huge compliment from filmmaker to author, this desire to translate what they did in a way that approximates the very thing that makes it special, especially in an age where people seem happy to see source material bent, twisted, or abandoned completely.  This is very much Winslow’s book brought to life, and I think it’s a movie with real soul, with a big ambitious sense of style.  While this is a ridiculously violent movie at times and there are some big chaotic action scenes, there’s something delicate and small about “Savages,” and I like that about it as well.

Technical credits are across the board sharp and bold.  Daniel Mindel, the cinematographer, is a big mainstream guy right now.  He shot “John Carter.” He shot both the “Star Trek” movies.  He shot “Mission: Impossible 3.”  He does big giant slick movies.  He’s shot several Tony Scott films, including the oh-so-infuriating “Domino.”  His work here is very much an homage to the way Stone worked with Robert Richardson on a whole run of films in the late ’80s and early ’90s.  It is also far less frantic than many recent variations on this hyper-saturated multiple-stock approach to shooting a film.  Stone certainly keeps the energy up, but it’s not relentless.  It’s not punishing.  It’s controlled, and he mixes things up for a purpose, carefully delineating what it is we’re watching, what’s real, what’s imagined, what’s remembered, what’s being experienced through a wave of shock.  The film’s soundtrack uses a number of songs really well, and it’s a typically oddball mix of influences for Stone.

Overall, “Savages” is one of the most complete pleasures for me this summer, and the confidence that it displays from start to finish feels like a newly clear-eyed Stone revving the engine for the first time since “Nixon.”  Is the crime story a little familiar, a little simple?  Sure.  If you’re interested in this sort of material, the actual plot isn’t really a shock or a revelation.  But that’s not the point.  Stone fell in love with these kids, and so he couldn’t do to them what Winslow does in the book, leading to a meta-textual moment late in the movie that you’ll either love or hate, but whichever way you go, Stone’s got you.  He’s going to get a reaction.  I’d love to see another run of bold and fun and dangerous movies from him, and “Savages” certainly suggests that Stone’s got plenty more in the tank.

“Savages” opens everywhere July 6.