On the day I saw SAVAGES, I heard two critics on NPR call it one of the worst movies ever made and read a review in the New York Times that made it sound as if it were touched by poetry. Then I discovered on the app I use to check for show times that 51% percent of critics liked it and 49% not. So I went because it was a new Oliver Stone movie and therefore sort of obligatory if you are a film person, and to break the critical tie in my own mind. With the caveat that not all poetry is equal, I will throw my lot in with the Times reviewer.
SAVAGES is a sort of fantasia of the drug wars, a ’60s love fest grafted onto a drama of the cartel violence of the contemporary Mexican border. From a novel by Don Winslow (several of whose mysteries I have enjoyed), the plot follows the travails of a romantic threesome, two buddies and their rich girl lover, when their marijuana trade is moved in on by a ruthless competitor. But plot isn’t what moves the film – it is propelled more by its shifting visual textures and moods, and the conclusion makes it vividly clear that it doesn’t much matter how the story is resolved.
There are scenes that remind one of Pekinpah and Leone, and a kind of psychedelic lushness to the whole experience. Much has been made of how bad the violence is, but it is not much worse than an average episode in the CSI franchise, and we are long used to much worse in the movies. The casting is first rate and, vitally, part of the visual rush that the film provides: John Travolta, soft and pasty, a layer of dough spread over his tough guy core; Blake Lively, a benighted golden girl if ever there was one, a willow among woodchoppers; Salma Hayek, hard and gorgeous, smarter than the whip you can imagine her wielding; Benicio del Toro, sweating sadism from the pores of his ravaged face; and Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson as Lively’s drug dealing lovers, bad boy and sensitive male all wrapped up in a sweet two-for-one deal.
And so, the film achieves the glossy pop poetry to which it aspires, which may not be of the highest order but is poetry nonetheless, languidly recited by the Blake Lively character – Ophelia by name, goes by “O” – in her clueless rich girl prose, spoiled through no fault of her own, intending no one any harm but incapable of larger insight, knowing that at least there can be love in the world, wondering what other meaning than that, if any, can possibly be found.
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