'Savages' Full of Reefer Madness

‘Savages’ serves as a smart, cautionary tale.

In the past year, we’ve seen the seamier side of paradise:  showed us the darker side of Hawaii, a side which most of us landlubbers didn’t even know existed, while  illuminated the grimier aspects of Southern California.

Filmmaker Oliver Stone, however, restores the luster of the West Coast in Savages, a cautionary tale of doublecrossing, drugs and a weird threesome. Color, scenery and the beautiful people of California are all on vivid display here, even as those peoples’ poor decisions create a twisted plotline that makes everyone seem bad in the end.

Savages is an interesting film sharpened by Stone’s skillful camerawork. Stone also employs the full onslaught of music (listen for a Bob Dylan tune and an interesting take on George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” at the end), multimedia (a countdown timer will have you on the edge of your seat) and mayhem (plenty of senseless violence is on display here) to weave a complex story.  These tricks are familiar ones for Stone, and this one recalls his disturbing 1994 film Natural Born Killers in the way he creatively alters the cinematic medium to move the story along.

The dialogue here is sharp as well—but I couldn’t sit in my usual perch in the last row of the theater this week due to other patrons, so I couldn’t take down any dialogue on my mobile device for fear of disrupting their movie experience. Likewise, I probably missed some plot points that flimsily reminded me of the Who, Hunter S. Thompson or Adolphe Menjou as well. Sorry gang.

Back to the screen. Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) run a lucrative marijuana dealing business in Laguna Beach, Calif., and their particularly potent strand was created through both the botany skills of Ben and the smuggling skills of Chon, who brought back some strong pot seeds from Afghanistan during a tour of duty in the army.

How strong is their weed? You’ll be running to the 7-Eleven for Funyuns and Orange Crush after just seeing this one.

Peaceful, Buddha-folllowing Ben and hairtrigger Chon are likeable enough characters that we forget they are drug dealers—the two could be selling surfboards in Venice Beach just as believably.

The two have built a five-leafed empire so strong that it catches the eyes of a powerful Mexican drug cartel run by Elena (an evil Salma Hayek). She (via intermediaries) proposes a corporate takeover in the most hostile of ways: Opehlia (also known as O, played by Blake Lively), who Ben and Chon literally share as a girlfriend, is kidnapped by her cartel, is fed pizza for days on end and watches a steady stream of daytime reality TV (which sounds remarkably similar to the cushy, at the hands of hapless  James “Jimmy the Hairdo” Glasgow).

Ben and Chon seek to free O by any means necessary, and after fumbling through several money-thieving and setup schemes, they finally realize that the only feasible way to release her is by counter-abducting Elena’s stateside daughter.

The film ends with a choose-your-own-adventure-type twist, including an intense standoff sequence punctuated by snipers and helicopters. It’s pretty effective.

John Travolta phones in a role as a doublecrossing drug enforcement officer here, and we’re given a true glimpse of Vinnie Barbarino at age 58, complete with paunch and receding hairline. Benecio Del Toro, meanwhile, playing a brutal cartel enforcer, carries the picture as a violently quirky and equally mistrustful opportunist.

Lastly, I’m no Oliver Stone scholar, but does any other filmmaker use a vomit as well as he does? Stone uses that most violent of bodily functions twice here, both as a first-time killer’s reaction to a recently committed murder. I’m not sure why I remember this, but he also successfully employed the barf as an effective cinematic reaction to stress multiple times in 1999’s gridiron classic Any Given Sunday.

Other observations at the moviehouse

Since when has the Volvo station wagon become the bad guy’s vehicle of choice? A late model one was driven by a malevolent bear-napper in  last week, and the same vehicle, used as a drug money mule here, was blowed up good by Ben and Chon in this one. Who knew that that tree-hugging liberalmobile had a dark streak? My 1998, with 160,000 miles, is probably going to land me in the Will County pokey based on this type of vehicular profiling.


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