Saturday, July 7, 2012

Danger to Themselves and Others: SAVAGES

In case we needed proof that director Oliver Stone has entered a relaxed late period of his filmmaking career, here comes Savages, a leisurely thriller that’s glancingly topical, set amidst recessionary drug-war politics and Mexican cartel violence, and at once complicated and reductive. He’s not stretching to make a pointed political statement or pumping up the style of what is already a fairly lurid, violent plot. Instead, he’s luxuriating in the nastiness and complexities of the script he co-wrote with Shane Salerno and Don Winslow (from Winslow’s novel). He’s taking his time, letting characters simmer until the time is right to spring them into action, allowing the plot to throw unlikely allies together, reveal its secrets, spin its wheels, come to moments of fiery action and then back down, coast along with a mostly talented ensemble cast until falling into a satisfying shoot-‘em-up climax that throws in a last minute surprise as it rewrites itself as it goes along.

The movie, a pulpy series of noirish events unraveling under the hot Laguna Beach sun, concerns two peaceful pot-growing entrepreneurs (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson) and the girl (Blake Lively) who loves them both. The steamy opening moments slowly introduce us to this tricky romantic triangle. The arrangement of relationships is open and the three of them are friendly, so it all works out. As the plot kicks into motion, the guys, on the advice of their crooked D.E.A. pal (John Travolta), are considering a substantial offer of money from a lawyer (Demián Bichir) representing a ruthless Mexican cartel that wants to hire them as a north-of-the-border supplier. When the guys make plans to skip town and turn them down, the head of the cartel (Salma Hayek) orders her head henchman (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap the girl.

What follows is a movie of shifting alliances and jockeying for power on both sides of the border. Everyone involved wants to get out of this nasty entanglement with the best enriching scenario for themselves, but given the violent, ruthless stakes of it all, most of them will be lucky to escape with their lives. In the telling, Stone is much less interested in the specifics of the action – although he stages a thrilling mid-film sequence of literal highway robbery – than in the slow burn of mood and style. This is a thriller that doesn’t feel in a rush to get anywhere in particular. Instead, it serves up long sequences that sit with characters as they try to fight their way through the suffocating moral thicket into which they’ve tumbled headfirst in the pursuit of self-preservation and profit. It’s a movie playing with all sorts of tropes of gangster movies, and neo-noir Westerns, but it’s really all about bloody business negotiations.

The ensemble cast is up to the task with incredible faces on which to watch the negotiations, and all the other scheming and plotting, play out. Kitsch and Johnson are buddies in over their heads with squinty, low-rent Butch and Sundance charm (a duo namedropped in the film itself). Hayek has a calm face of deep anger, sadness and cold calculation, Del Toro, a brutality behind his literal mustache twirling, Travolta, a close-cropped greed that reveals itself in scenes with both sides of this mess. Lively’s character, when she's not reading overwritten narration, is a vexing dilemma, needy and terrified, willful and weak, and hard to read. She’s in a position of very little power in this scenario, but she’s desperate to find a way out nonetheless and works very hard to hide this desperation as she gets close to the one who holds her captive. It’s a tangle of emotional and business connections.

Though Stone spikes the narrative with shots that slowly fade to black and white or flash into various lenses and filters, this isn’t a chaotic stylistic experiment. This is a thriller of straightforward moodiness, a slow-building tension that watches its characters as they twist under pressure, desperate to find simple solutions to their complicated problems. What we have here is the work of a confident director who somehow makes the film feel like a work of mature exploitation. Because it’s a film of characters glowering and calculating, working their way through logic bordering on labyrinthine into triangulations that will hopefully give them the best advantage when on the other side of this bloody mess, moments of incredible violence (one man's whipped so hard his eyeball pops out of its socket) and icky tortures both physical and psychological (especially uncomfortable and unnecessary is a video that Del Toro shows Lively late in the film) feel both shocking and inevitable.

Stone’s always, especially in his more clearly political films, been interested in authority, who has it, who benefits from it, who is hurt by it, whether it be soldiers (Platoon, Born on the Forth of July), presidents (Nixon, W.), politicians (JFK), bankers (Wall Street), conquerors (Alexander), and media forces both institutions (Any Given Sunday) and the infamous (Natural Born Killers). In Savages, the only real authority in the drug trade comes from what can be bought with threats and violence. This is an unstable situation. What makes this a compelling representation of this concept is the way Stone keeps a sharp eye on the characters as they slowly make their moves towards gaining or retaining the upper hand.

Here, after a big violent shootout, one character begs the others to pull to the side of the road and vomits out of the getaway car. This is a vicious movie filled with scared characters desperately trying to find their way back into some kind of comfort zone, an amount of weary realism in aggressive, stylized pulp. Stone may eschew nuance for intensity, but he provides the texture to keep things interesting. It’s telling that, although Stone isn’t out to make any sort of overtly political statement and no character could be considered a moralistic center, at different points in the movie the Americans and the Mexicans each call the other “savages” behind the others’ backs. And then they each get the chance to live down to that description.

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