It's not particularly revelatory to portray the illegal drug trade on display in Savages as one full of violence and treachery. Fortunately, director Oliver Stone takes this well-worn subject matter and fashions a lean, tense thriller that also offers a thoughtful take on human nature. Stone, who coscripted with Shane Salerno and Don Winslow (based on Winslow’s novel), brings a lyrical, sensual quality to this pulpy, often brutal material.
Taylor Kitsch (John Carter, Battleship) and Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass, Nowhere Boy) are Chon and Ben, two surfer-dude best buds and entrepreneurs who distribute their own brand of high-grade marijuana while enjoying a little bit of paradise in Laguna Beach, California. Stone’s richly colored, panoramic images of the Pacific ocean and coastline emphasize the sensuality of their life, one that extends to their relationship with mutual, live-in girlfriend Ophelia (Blake Lively). As another key character observes, their ability to share the same woman is rooted in their love for one another. For Ophelia, who also narrates this tale, her love for these two men is rooted in her appreciation for their differences. Chon is cynical, hardened by his time as a soldier in Afghanistan, yet exuding a graceful nobility. With his slender frame and soft features, Johnson is an idealized representation of the sensitive male as the philanthropic Ben, who spends time overseas helping people in third-world countries.
The threesome's idyllic lifestyle is interrupted when a Mexican cartel led by the casually ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek) decides to partner with their indie business. When Chon and Ben refuse, the cartel kidnaps Ophelia, as Elena instantly recognizes the power the sunkissed blond has over them. In Lively’s flower child, and Hayek’s drug lord, Stone offers two very different but potent representations of female sexuality.
Stone’s movie is stylish without the hyperkinetic excess to which he is sometimes prone, and he allows his larger points about the war on drugs to make themselves without being too heavy handed. Amidst the graphic depictions of violence, Stone occasionally indulges in macabre humor, as when the sound of a lawn mower is heard as a character snorts a line of coke. A particularly memorable scene of Ophelia being tracked by the cartel is scored to classical music.
As Elena’s pitiless and thoroughly creepy enforcer Lado, Benicio Del Toro is chilling in his inhumanity, a trait that is all the more terrifying in light of his tendency to take nothing at face value. Travolta, sans hair piece, chews up the scenery as Dennis, a wormy, fast-talking DEA agent playing all sides of the drug trade for his piece of the action. Dennis sees the legalization of pot coming and advises Ben and Chon to make their deal with the cartel. Or as he puts it in his blunt way, “Don’t fuck with Walmart.”
With Ophelia’s kidnapping, Chon and Ben enter a cauldron of inhumane behavior that influences their attitudes and actions. Stone illustrates the needless violence that begets more violence, and how even otherwise decent people resort to horrifying measures when motivated by money, survival, revenge and love. In his film's final images, Stone echoes its opening scenes, and through Ophelia recognizes a kind of fall from grace.