Savages (2012)

Posted on September 5, 2014

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Savages is an Oliver Stone film. I expect his films to be beautifully filmed, and challenging. This was no exception.

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Synopsis

Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are California pot farmers. Ben is an idealist, pumping his profits into charitable works around the globe. Chon is a veteran who brought the war home. O (Blake Lively) is their shared girlfriend.

The boys have a DEA agent, Dennis (John Travolta) in their pocket, because the movie is set before the wave of decriminalization began in the United States.

Their business is successful enough that it attracts the attention of a Mexican cartel, run by Elena (Salma Hayek). Lado (Benicio del Toro) is her ambitious enforcer.

Elena doesn’t just want the business, she wants the boys, and she’ll do whatever it takes to get them.

Short Version

I expected a gritty, challenging, movie, and I got one.

 

Long Version

As a viewer (and reviewer) of films, I don’t mind knowing the ending ahead of time. I’m interested in how the story moves to that ending. Does the story logically build to the ending? Is the ending really about confronting fears to achieve desires?

So I’m going to talk about the ending of Savages up front, because it lets me explain the themes and ideas in this movie. This is your spoiler alert.

The End

Savages ends in a bloody battle that leaves everyone dead. Lado betrays Elena, and the DEA makes him a hero undercover informer. Elena and the boys die in a gunfight between the cartel and the Chon’s fellow veterans. O gets caught in the crossfire.

Except that doesn’t happen.

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The ending rewinds to have the DEA show up earlier and arrest everyone. Ben and Chon do a little time (Dennis bears a bit of a grudge, so he doesn’t completely protect them) and then they move to the South Pacific with O. Lado meets a bloody end, and Elena gets arrested.

Why?

Interpretations

One of the most important things for my understanding of this film was realizing that O is an unreliable narrator.

Blake Lively and Salma Hayek have a great scene together. Elena kidnaps O to get the boys to cooperate. Elena has a daughter roughly O’s age, so she tries to treat O as a combination of guest and prisoner. They have dinner together and O mentions that she is having trouble processing and dealing with everything. Elena gently probes how long O has been taking drugs, which turns out to be since a very early age. Or maybe I’m old and out of touch, and it just seems very early. Elena suggests that drugs are not a tool for O to deal with her life, but instead are the reason she can’t deal.

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That one scene forced me to reevaluate the entire movie. O introduces Ben and Chon to the audience. It’s through her perspective that we first see them. That colors our experience of them, and of the story. It’s Elena, the ostensible villain, who lets us see O’s biases.

This is, I believe, one of Oliver Stone’s points: We all see the world through our own biases. Particularly when we’re young, we see the world the way we want to see it.

The movie glosses over the birthing pains of Ben’s and Chon’s pot growing, because O doesn’t want to know how the boys dealt with competition. Her fairy tale story of their beautiful, harmless, peaceful operation completely ignores the reality that there were pot dealers and suppliers before Ben and Chon came along. We never really see how the suppliers reacted to being supplanted by the boys, and how the boys dealt with that.

O spends the movie waking up to the realities of the drug business, and some of her waking moments are brutal.

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Which made me wonder – do they really get to the South Pacific? Or is that O’s final fantasy, as she lies dying in the desert?

Oliver Stone wants us to think about the transition from illegal to legal. The existing drug cartels stand to lose a lot of money as legalization changes. Their tools for dealing with change are money and violence.

So Savages asks us to consider how harmless pot really is. Not by investigating how addictive it is or whether it causes cancer, but instead by pointing out the violence inherit in any unregulated system. In this case, the system is the growth and distribution of marijuana.

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He also wants us to see the cost of the war on drugs: By making drugs illegal, we made them immensely profitable. Legal, law-abiding, businesses would love those profits, so they are certainly interested in legalization regardless of its impact on individual health. Meanwhile, criminals rake in the profits and we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re willing to use violence to protect those profits.

Simultaneously, all that money is infinitely corrupting. It’s just too easy not to take some. Unexpected bill? No problem. Just wait until your next payoff. Child has life-threatening illness? Guy with more money than he can use can help you, if you’re willing to look the other way once in a while. Illustrating that point is the whole reason that Dennis is in the movie.

By showing us that O is an unreliable narrator, Oliver Stone gets us to reexamine his movie, and question what he’s shown us. It’s an exercise that, clearly, he hopes we’ll continue into our daily lives.

Conclusion

Savages asks us to take off our cultural blinders, examine our biases, and take a deeper look at what legalization means. While it does so, it treats us to gorgeous images, terrific acting, and a fast-paced story.

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Not for the faint of heart, and definitely not for the kids. If you want to watch a good movie that is also thought-provoking, try this one.

 

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Posted in: Movies