Oliver Stone’s Savages has guts. In this sun-drenched acid wash of a thriller, a trio of naïve young lovers butt heads with a brutal Mexican drug cartel, and the entanglement proves violently disruptive, waking them up from their idyllic Southern California fantasy. This awakening of sorts is envisioned by Stone though a jolting mesh of vibrant colors, contrasting film stocks, and off-kilter compositions. Throughout, the hyper-realized style helps to articulate the brutal cost of living inside a self-contained bubble.
O (Blake Lively), the bleached-blond narrator of Savages, opens the film with a flowery monologue about her complex relationship with two of SoCal’s biggest pot dealers, ex-marine Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Buddhist botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson). The pair of high school buddies established their drug empire by growing high-grade seeds that Chon illegally smuggled into the states from Afghanistan, making them street kings in a matter of years. As with many successful small businesses, eventually the corporate vultures start circling with the hostile intent of takeover. So it goes that the high THC percentages in Chon and Ben’s weed attract the eye of the Galindo cartel run by Elena (Salma Hayek), a desperate drug lord being forced out of power by powerful competition backed by the Mexican government. She believes their drug operation will be her saving grace.
It only takes a few moments of O’s generic noir voiceover to realize that she’s just one of many delusional souls who seem to believe they live in a vacuum, untouchable by those threatening their livelihoods. When Chon and Ben refuse the cartel’s offer to join their operation, Elena tasks her psychotic right-hand man, Lado (Benicio del Toro), to snatch O and force them into submission. It’s here when Savages really gets nasty. Ben’s nonviolent credo wilts within a matter of scenes and O’s pampered lifestyle is instantly crushed by Lado’s sadism. It’s downright hilarious when O obliviously asks her captor for a toothbrush before being locked up in a living space/dungeon that echoes the sitcom/nightmare sequences in Natural Born Killers.
After recent slogs like World Trade Center, W., and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, it’s comforting to see Stone back in his comfort zone of stylistic excess and narrative embellishment. To call Savages swift would be an understatement; the film breathlessly cuts between Chon and Ben’s quest to retrieve their girl by any means necessary, Elena’s oddly affecting maternal relationship with O, and Lado’s slippery side deals with a competing cartel boss. Even the splintering denouement, although ridiculous from a narrative standpoint, is brilliantly spontaneous in its execution.
If there’s one core theme in Savages, it’s the death of sensitivity in characters vigorously trying to hold on to their purity. Introduced as a non-violent humanist who uses his drug dealing profits to start a charity, Ben is forced to kill one of Elena’s men after framing him as a rat. Lado even murders his young protégé because he’s “too sensitive.” In a world this down and dirty, there’s no room for compassion or hesitation. With Savages, Stone transplants the Mexican drug war to American soil, creating a candy-colored nightmare where no one—rich or poor, warrior or innocent—escapes unscathed.
The 1080p transfer by Universal brilliantly captures the film’s striking use of color. There’s the bright blues of the Pacific Ocean, the fireball orange of an exploding car, and the soft greens of a jungle hideaway. The DTS-HD MA audio transfer mixes both the high and low registers of the soundtrack—from the deafening sound of a revving chainsaw to the smooth sound of waves crashing—with equally impressive care.
The audio commentary by Oliver Stone is interesting but unexceptional as a window into the film’s core themes. In a droll, caustic voice, Stone describes reading Don Winslow’s violent and sexy source novel and thinking, "We’re in R-rated territory here, so might as well go for it." I was expecting something a little more Oliver Stone-like. The other audio commentary features co-screenwriters Winslow and Shane Salerno, producers Eric Kopeloff and Moritz Borman, and production designer Tomás Voth. Unstructured and rambling, this surface-deep track features way too many folks competing for attention. Also included are deleted scenes and a lengthy five-part featurette entitled "Stone Cold Savages: The Making of Savages," basically an extended marketing tool for the film.
Oliver Stone returns to the grit, grime, and blood of his glory days with Savages, a breakneck SoCal-set thriller about the death of sensitivity in the modern age.