Show Hide image

Savages – review

Ryan Gilbey is stunned by the lack of subtlety in a message-heavy drugs tale.

Savages (15)
dir: Oliver Stone

Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic had its share of flaws and simplifications but at least it attempted to provide a sane overview of the drugs trade, a subject traditionally greeted with hysteria. Another film-maker could have handled the same topic with more sensationalism. That hypothetical director might have been unwilling to trust the audience to navigate its way through murky moral waters and would have felt it necessary to plant pointers at every turn, perhaps investing in a garrulous voiceover to banish any ambiguity. Such a work would have to be labelled an idiots’ version of Traffic. And so to Oliver Stone’s latest film, Savages.

One doesn’t so much watch an Oliver Stone movie as endure a lengthy explanation, at deafening volume and in heat-singed colours, of how it ought to be interpreted. (No one ever emerged from JFK or Natural Born Killers asking: “Now, what was he trying to tell me?”) But when Stone dispenses with the bullying, as he did in his last three fiction films (World Trade Center, W., Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), the result is usually insipid; his voice is so much a part of his message that even a minor drop in volume resembles a surrender. A handful of his films (Salvador, Nixon) have been both stylistically aggressive and emotionally contemplative. Savages, an adaptation of the novel by Don Winslow, isn’t one of them.

Aaron Johnson plays Ben, a hippyish young Californian living high on the hog in Laguna Beach on the proceeds of the marijuana-growing business he runs with his pal, Chon (Taylor Kitsch). The secret of their success is the Afghan cannabis seed brought back by Chon, along with a mild case of post-traumatic stress disorder, from his last tour of duty. A drugs enforcement agent (John Travolta) keeps the law off their backs but he can’t do anything about the Mexican cartel whose members want to negotiate a stake in the boys’ enterprise – “negotiate” in this context meaning “demand on pain of decapitation.”

As well as sharing a business, Ben and Chon also pass the same woman back and forth like a joint: that’s O (Blake Lively), formerly known as Ophelia until she discovered she’d been named after a “bipolar basket case”, as she puts it, paraphrasing slightly the dramatis personae from the First Folio. In the absence of having much to do beyond getting kidnapped and menaced, O is given the film’s narrating duties. There’s certainly no danger she’ll be mistaken for Holly Hunter in The Piano.

First she explains the differences between the two loves of her life, in case it had escaped our attention that Ben is the sensitive one, in charge of wearing friendship bracelets and giving money to African orphans, while Chon oversees any punching that needs doing (to uncooperative associates, that is, not to African orphans). Ben, she says, has a Buddhist philosophy, whereas Chon’s is strictly “Baddest”. It’s the sort of pointless wordplay in which the script indulges in lieu of wit (Chon has “wargasms” rather than orgasms; Ben’s business is described as a “grow-op”). O also exhibits signs of Compulsive Host Syndrome, introducing us to everyone who passes in front of the camera, no matter how measly their function will be (“Doc, Sam and Billy are ex-Navy SEALs . . . Spin used to be an investment banker . . .”). Cinemas are slowly coming round to the idea of penalising patrons who natter needlessly during the film. Couldn’t the same prohibition be extended to those on screen?

It would be nice to think O was telling us things we couldn’t have gleaned for ourselves. But anyone who doesn’t foresee early in the movie that Ben will eventually find his inner barbarian during his dealings with the Mexicans, while Chon will connect tenderly at last with another human being, may have had their reflexes dulled by that Afghan weed. Conventional character development can be disguised by adventurous casting. Stone, on the contrary, has given over most of his movie to the blandest trio since Peter, Paul and Mary.

Savages argues implicitly that there can be no safe or beneficial resolution to the drugs problem without legalisation; any endeavour, no matter how well-intentioned (and there are several characters here who score for exclusively medicinal reasons), will invite the interference and wrath of thugs, hit-men, cartels.

Much of this reasoning gets trampled under Stone’s bombastic methods. Tucked away toward the end of the picture, though, are some unusual scenes featuring Elena (Salma Hayek), the cartel boss whose career has exacerbated tensions with her own adult daughter. She is at first appalled by the babbling and over-sharing of her hostage, O, just as we have been. “Do Americans always talk this way?” she wonders vaguely. But it transpires that even the brutal heads of sinister cartels can feel pain. “My daughter is ashamed of me and I’m proud of her for it,” Elena admits, introducing a welcome jolt of unresolved, adult emotion. It’s fitting that a movie about drugs should itself resort to a kind of smuggling: beneath its many layers of flashy padding lies this small stash of drama both potent and true.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

Show Hide image

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide