The sun, in its various hues and levels of intensity, plays an important role in Oliver Stone’s latest, “Savages.”
In the beginning of this tale of sex, drugs, money and power, it illuminates an idyllic decadence. It warms everything in a glow that suggests anything is possible, in a way that’s hazy and almost hallucinatory. But such a lifestyle can’t be maintained forever. That’s just the way these stories tend to go. So eventually, especially in the film’s bloody desert climax, the sun bakes everyone mercilessly, bleaching away the colors and revealing the characters’ true natures.
Regardless of which side of the battle they’re on, it’s clear they’ve all become savages.
Sounds intense, and Stone’s film is indeed a lurid, pulpy film noir but with an erotic, even dreamlike California beach vibe. It’s an intriguing contrast, this mixture of a genre and an aesthetic that may not necessarily sound like they’d blend well together, but the result is the most explosively poppy film Stone has made in a long time.
“Savages” is darkly funny and stylishly violent but never reaches the overwhelming level of audiovisual assault of, say, “Natural Born Killers.” Directing from a script he co-wrote with Shane Salerno and Don Winslow (based on Winslow’s novel), Stone draws us into this glamorous yet seedy world and draws strong performances from his eclectic ensemble cast.
Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson co-star as best friends and business partners Chon and Ben, young surfer dudes who got rich quick growing a particularly strong strain of pot. Chon, an ex-Navy SEAL, came home after fighting in Afghanistan with the potent seeds and, understandably, some residual jumpiness from the war. Ben, who studied botany at UC-Berkeley, turned those seeds into a small, independent empire, but he’s a pacifist with philanthropic goals.
The two live in a spectacular Laguna Beach home with endless views of the Pacific Ocean. They also happily share the affections of their mutual girlfriend, the gorgeous, blonde O (Blake Lively), a nouveau riche Orange County princess who benefits from this arrangement in every possible way. (And there is a whole lotta masculine, muscular nudity in this film, just FYI — nearly as much as there was in last week’s release, “Magic Mike.”)
Everyone’s happy until the leader of a Mexican cartel, the regal but ruthless Elena (a fantastic, scenery-chewing Salma Hayek), tries to expand her territory by taking over their business. First, she sends her trusted right-hand man (an elegant Demian Bechir) to approach them with a gentlemanly, if well-armed, proposition. When they politely decline, with phrasing that will come back to haunt them, she sends one of her heavies (Benicio Del Toro, amusingly cartoony) to make her point a little more clear.
Then things start to get really ugly for these beautiful people.
Kitsch is in one mode: He’s the trigger-happy, intense muscle of the operation, but he’s consistent and believable. Johnson fares better: His character has more shading, and he proves once again how versatile he is following roles as young John Lennon in “Nowhere Boy,” the nerdy superhero of “Kick-A**” and the handsome but illiterate boiler repair man in “Albert Nobbs.”
Lively, meanwhile, continues to expand on the unexpected glimmers of strength she revealed in 2010’s “The Town,” in contrast to her glamorous persona on- and off-camera. She’s called upon for more physical and emotional rigors than ever before and, for the most part, rises to Stone’s challenge.
As our guide through this shadowy world, she’s also saddled with delivering the film’s sometimes-smothering narration; some lines that perhaps read better on paper clang on the ear. Approaching such language (and the voiceover in general) from the perspective that it’s intended as a fundamental piece of film noir-style filmmaking makes it more relevant, though not necessarily more tolerable.
Among the other colorful characters with something at stake are John Travolta as a DEA agent on the take and Emile Hirsch as the genius who finds complicated ways to hide the guys’ money.
Stone clearly has a pro-drug message here, or at least an anti-war-on-drugs message: Everything falls apart once controls start being exerted. That’s unsurprising, given the open way in which he’s discussed drug use throughout his life. What is surprising is the fact that he’s not beating us over the head with it. “Savages” is an enjoyably gratuitous romp, but with something to say.