Taking his filmography as a whole, Oliver Stone’s long march toward some type of cinematic higher truth continues with Savages, a movie so concerned with its own profundity — and so desperately believing in its own cleverness — that it forgets to give the audience a reason to give a damn. Sold in its ad campaign as a “return to form” by evoking Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) and Brian De Palma’s Scarface (a movie Stone only wrote), Savages comes across as a film that wants to say something, that wants to shock and provoke, but just doesn’t know how. Stone’s longtime reputation as a raconteur and rabble-rouser is almost quaint these days, and just as toothless. In most ways it’s a pity that his violence and grit have become so nattering, and his ideas so often ham-fisted, because nothing Savages does is fresh or engaging.
This time around, Stone has decided to target — much like Scarface — the drug trade, focusing on Chon (Taylor Kitsch, Battleship) and Ben (Aaron Johnson, Albert Nobbs), a couple of California pot growers who’ve made a small fortune in both legal and illegal marijuana dealing. The two men are best friends, but — as Stone seems intent on battering us over the head with — both represent different sides of the spectrum. Chon is the shattered, hard-assed ex-marine, while Ben is the peaceful Buddhist. Together they form not just a business relationship, but a romantic tryst with their shared girlfriend Ophelia (Blake Lively) who goes by O for short (if nothing else, this film has no lack of Shakespearean references and evocations).
Things get sticky for the trio when, after passing on a business deal with an encroaching Mexican drug cartel — run by Elena (Salma Hayek) and her sadistic righthand man Lado (Benicio Del Toro) — O is kidnapped as a means of making Chon and Ben cooperate. Instead of simply giving in, our duo decides to get even. They concoct a plan while attempting to traverse an ever more complicated plot that entangles them, O, Elena, Lado, and on-the-take DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) in an convoluted web of backstabbing and duplicitousness.
As far as foundations go, you could do a lot worse, except Stone and his co-writers make one fatal mistake — never giving the audience a reason to give a damn. Chon and Ben simply represent types — the former, hard-skinned and built for violence, the latter, at odds with his peaceful beliefs and the uglier, bloodier world he finds himself sinking into. There’s little else to their personalities, and even less to O’s, and we never get a good sense as to why they’re going to so much trouble for her. At worst, she’s insipid, at best she’s pretentious. Her fits of wandering, dull narration had me looking for a sharp object to insert inside my ear canal. There’s more nuance — likely on purpose — to Elena and Lado (the latter who becomes less complex and — because of one scene at the end — simply vile). But that’s not saying much since Stone’s real purpose orbits around the vagaries of evil. Stone wants to operate in shades of gray, but his flimsy characters can’t hold up his ideas, so his moral ambiguity feels rehashed and stale. Obviously, there are much worse films than Savages, but for one that fancies itself as weighty, it adds little to the discussion. Rated R for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout.