Sunday, 29 July 2012

Love is the strangest drug

Savages: directed by Oliver Stone; written by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow and Oliver Stone

Reviewing Oliver Stone’s significantly frenetic Savages poses some difficulty. For one, I tend to be so obstinately literal in the way I process information I end up being expressly against subscribing to the notion of a term like “guilty” pleasure – since the inherent feature in all things pleasure is the eschewing of all things disagreeable, like guilt. And, I’ve seen a few folks who appreciated the hijinks at work in the film write off their appreciation with the more “justifiable” edict of it being “guilty pleasure”. For two, the film itself is so often, deliberately fascinated by the hazily trashy (and this is, after all, the same man who directed U-Turn) that I’m not certain that I may not either be overestimating its purpose or in any case not as adept in enjoying the silly garishness which the film presents the audience with. But then, of course, I must have been well versed enough in Stone-weirdness because I did enjoy the nuttiness of Savages.
Or, at least I think it is nuttiness. For, Savages looks at the disconcerting violence which comes with the world of drugs (and the proliferation of said drugs across the world) could make for a potent, solemn drama. This is not it, though. Theoretically serious issues and all, and Stone’s earnestness of direction aside (a blessing for such a heady visceral film) Savages is much too much too lurid to be that film. The place is Laguna Beach, California and the time is presumable present. Chon and Ben are two well-off small-business drug dealers, the latter the brain and the former the brawn. The two live peaceably with their girlfriend (yes, their) Ophelia but their serene reality is threatened when a Mexican drug cartel strong-arms them into becoming associates. When both of the two things which drive them are thrown into jeopardy (the first being drugs, the second being O) by the appearance of this cartel, Chon and Ben must decide just how they’re going to get out of their business alive. And, it’s such an obviously daft set-up where daft set-up where the parallel to be drawn is almost certainly the ironic nature of the drugs they produce not being as dangerous as the “love” (?) they both feel for O, who they’ll do anything save. And I swear, I didn’t deliberately try to make those plot points sound that inane – they’re true. But, they’re true with just the slightest tinge of humour, which is one of my favourite things about Savages.

I’ve been having this bizarre about-face lately where I’m becoming more and more appreciative of the way conventionally serious issues are injected with significant bouts of levity. Savages stays true to its title and makes good on the overwhelming barrage of brutality the name suggests. And, on some level I wonder if I should, perhaps, object to this and condemn Stone for superfluous violence but then the name of the film demands it and the violence is only superfluous inasmuch as the characters don’t need to be so violent but they are anyway. But the fact that they are unnecessarily violent is part of the story. Which leads me to another interesting feature of the film – the essentiality of everything within the frame. Sort of. I’d be lying if I said that the film is especially coherent or cohesive on its own, but within the strictures of what it is and what (I suspect) it aims to be it doesn’t waste any of itself. Even the overwhelmingly pat narration via Blake Lively’s O (just as frustrating and goatish as she is in her most famous incarnation – Serena Van der Woodsen) isn’t quite as objectionable as it could be because in a very odd way Stone doesn’t necessarily make her a better performer but directs her in a way that her limitations become just right for film.

....more below about Savages on-point ensemble, its weirdness which works and my reasons for liking it...

The entire cast is on point. Even if Taylor Kitsch (an actor I like, even if he’s not very range-y) seems stuck playing in a tight register which runs from A to B he works, especially opposite Aaron Johnson who gets to be the most emotive of the three “leads”. The three are buoyed significantly by work from a strong supporting cast. I can’t remember the last time John Travolta has been as easily pleasant to watch. Benecio Del Tero attacks his grotesque villain role with a gusto that’s remarkable to behold and Demián Bichir (playing maybe, probably, the most honest character) does some good things with little times. The acting standout, though, is Salma Hayek as twisty, lurid, bizarre, sensational and gratifying as the film itself. The film, and Hayek, also manage to one-up the audience beautifully by presenting Hayek’s drug cartel leader Elena as not just a titillating quasi-madam. Elena’s arc unfolds with some key emotional character beats which aren’t treated with the irony you might expect from something like Savages.

(And, this doesn't fit with the actual review but I need to talk about Salma Hayek's revolting wig which threatened to take me out of the film with its shapelessness but even that the film makes good on because SPOILER ALERT in a particularly emotional moment her character takes it off and weeps and I wanted to stand up and cheer because, damn, that thing was hideous.)

And, really, it’s so easy to scoff at much of Savages. For example, I’m still not altogether (okay, at all) certain as to what kind of a name is Chon (more the fault of the original novelist than Stone and company). And because the film’s tone isn’t biting enough to be caustic it’s difficult to view the film as a sort of satirical piece. Still, it’s problematic once you start responding to a film with characters ranging from lazily illicit to effectively despicable with cries of it endorsing the idleness of people it espies. For one, the line as to what morals a film should promulgate (and how) are too blurred in the first place – and the edict of films and their didactic necessity don’t appeal to me much. Furthermore, even as Stone doesn’t take pains to vilify the lifestyles of his main characters it’s difficult to prove that he specifically presents an endorsement of them. Savages itself seems so focused on presenting as many lurid thrills (and incidental silliness) as possible, it’s content to distance itself – but barely – from its characters inclinations and entertain us while we watch them meander through their personal silliness.
It sort of becomes the slightest bit of a meta-scenario where we wonder if we’re to take O’s decidedly on-the-nose closing monologue as authentic. But, then, having been presented with this silly to the point of ridiculous twentysomething girl with a penchant for hyperbole as much as subtle egoism it would be weird if we took it all in earnest. Remember, this is a girl who’s been using marijuana since her preteen days. These are children, twentysomething children who romanticise their existence and compare themselves to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid not because they (or the film) are legitimising a comparison between themselves and legends but because they’re just the type of weirdly endearing vacuous fools who would think to make such a comparison. And since O is the willowy thing which binds the film together (as well as the two men she loves) it only makes sense for me to take Savages as a similarly on-the-nose but enjoyable thing which for all its garish idiocy works and works in a way that’s interesting and satisfying. It’s like a behemoth sized ball of cotton candy but made up of sex, blood, guts, violence, silliness and craziness. And the bite of it though possibly bad for you, goes down very easy. That’s a win in my book.

Good Thing Going / B


Nick Prigge said...

"Garish idiocy." I like that. I think that's a really good two word summation for the film. And I think that's a compliment for the film. I'm like you, I was willing to put aside the suspect morals to enjoy the trash. And I think that's ok because Stone really never even tries to moralize. There is an underlining of: live fast, die fast.

Also, yeah, the wig. Oh, the wig. Biggest laugh of the whole film. Go, Salma, go!

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

nick the thing with the wig is that through the entire film it's bugging and i keep thinking, "andrew, CALM DOWN." yikes.

also, we seem to be in the minority, but i had fun. and, regret nothing.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

Catching up -- love this movie, have plans to see it again next week. Glad others are appreciating the, as you say, "hazily trashy...nuttiness" of this film.