“You let people think you’re weak, sooner or later you’re going to have to kill them.”
Swift shot: Definitely lives up to the title and the hype. Savages is a primal love story with a woman’s testicles. Winslow and Stone deliver near perfection!
Chon (Taylor ‘Battleship’ Kitsch) is the fierce bad-ass war veteran who is cold steel on the screen; he is a realist. Chon is an ex-Navy SEAL who is in business with his best friend, Ben (Aaron ‘Kick Ass’ Johnson) running legal head-shops with “medicinal marijuana” in southern California, out of Paradise itself, Laguna Beach. They share a love of kush and a leggy blonde, Ophelia who goes by O for the most part. And yes, I do mean they share her in every sense of the word.
They do well enough with their legit business, but the real money is in illegal trade outside of the state and country. As business partners go, they are the perfect pairing (or trio) and push the finest greens, but eventually they attract the attention of the Baja Cartel and are given an ultimatum, join the cartel or become headless.
O (Blake ‘Travelling Pants’ Lively) is the narrator of the film, and sets the tone, offering casual reminders that we are witnessing her story. The narration, much like the violence, wasn’t wasted. You never find yourself thinking, hey, would you just shut-up already, I know what is happening, nor are you ever left wanting more narration – it really is balanced almost as beautifully as Blake herself. Blake is the binding agent that keeps the THC levels around 33%, oddly enough, she makes up 33% of the threesome . . . nice touch Don Winslow!
Their product is actually too good. Sooner or later the real power players want a cut of their profits. So what would you do? Chon, being a rational pragmatist uses the line, “You let people think you’re weak, sooner or later you’re going to have to kill them.” He concisely puts his answer to the Cartel, “You want us to eat your shit and call it caviar.” Ben is more the peace-freak diplomat, a devout Buddhist, and is shaken when the Cartel sends them an email hard to forget . . . he confesses to Chon that he is scared and wants to just high-tail it (pun intended) to Indonesia with O. The plan is in place, and with a small cadre of other SEAL buddies to protect them as they flee, the plan seems foolproof. But there wouldn’t be much of a story there if they managed to flee without a hitch, at least not a story that Oliver Stone would direct.
The Cartel is led by a ruthless Queen, Elena “La Reina” (Salma ‘Desperado’ Hayek) who manages to bring a viciousness balanced with an odd sense of compassion to the screen under the granite-fisted Stone. She is ruthless, but her motives are never questioned, her motives are simple, it is about power and respect, without either, her cartel is nothing but a nut-less bunch of thugs. She directs the violence through her most trusted associate, Lado (Benicio ‘The Usual Suspects’ Del Toro) who would most-likely get another Academy nod, if they could just stomach some raw villainy this year. We shall see. Toro is in every sense the bull, in each scene he delivers a chilling certitude that evil is present. His equally slimy, yet less tarnished legal counter-part, Alex (Demian Bichir) serves the Queen with as much dedication . . . perhaps even more.
John Travolta finally got to work with Oliver Stone, (or was it the other way around) as the morally-flexible DEA agent, Dennis who seems to always be one step ahead of everyone else. Travolta has never been my favorite actor, but he has slowly grown on me through some of his better performances, and in Savages I never felt like I was watching Travolta, he was Dennis and was in palpable peril at every turn.
This movie wouldn’t be quite so gut-wrenching if you could just convince yourself that the violence seems too macabre – - – but we hear, daily, of decapitations in Mexico and as Savages reminds us, maybe those folks were the lucky ones. A chilling thought kept creeping behind me, you are never more vulnerable then when you love someone more than yourself. Perhaps that is the one theme tying Savages together. It sucks, really, because many people would be willing to die themselves . . . if only to prevent their loved-ones from facing the same fate.
Savages will stick in your head long after you leave the theater, and I imagine if you live anywhere near the border, as you read this, someone less than 50 miles from you is being slowly tortured to keep some cartel held together through fear and intimidation. Savages pushes the limit of self-preservation and asks us, would we be willing to sacrifice our souls to shelter those we love? It isn’t enough to question would you be willing to die to preserve that faith, but would you be willing to kill?
In the end, Paradise always comes with a price.