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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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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