Savages – Behind the Orange Curtain

In Savages, director Oliver Stone turns a David and Goliath story into drama by adding sex, drugs and firepower. It’s also a business parable that the Tea Party could weaponize.

Stone’s adaptation of the novel by Don Winslow – which itself is mostly Orange County slacker-hipster dialogue — stages the face-off between a duo of tech-savvy pot growers and the Mexican cartel gangsters whose turf the stoners are burning off. Think of indie entrepreneurs like Apple or Google or Mrs. Field’s cookies fighting the drug version of a Mexican conglomerate, and then add Ophelia, or O (Blake Lively) as the O. C. gilded shopaholic who keeps the two guys distracted.

In the wrenching brutal splendor of a spaghetti western (or a Coen brothers tale) Benicio Del Toro gets the blood flowing when he enforces the will of narco-queen Elena (Salma Hayek) on his way to tame the American upstarts – who package their weed in a pot-growing lair that looks like a groovy food co-op under growth lights. Both sides are paying bribes to oleaginous Dennis (John Travolta), a smarmy insider at the local Drug Enforcement Administration

Hayek steals the show as a diva in kitschy black bangs – eventually, we’ll see that it’s a wig. She reigns over a drug family because she’s one of the last not to be murdered. When the American boys kidnap her spoiled daughter in revenge for the cartel’s kidnapping of O, Elena panics with all the explosiveness of Medusa on steroids. We move to familiar territory for Stone, melodrama, before we move to deeply familiar territory for this director, conspiracy – but not before a tete-a-tete dinner at which Elena blows up in exasperation with O’s Orange County discourse – “Are all Americans so stupid?”

There’s a seductive visual melodrama to “Savages” that comes with the narco-war territory, and with shifting the action from one place to the next, which happens a lot by means of panoramic helicopter shots that suggest something topographic about the drug trade — or maybe they’re just scenes that Ridley Scott hasn’t shot yet. Orange County filmed as if it’s Rio de Janeiro or Hong Kong? – I’m not kidding.

Grandiose in its ambitions, grandiloquent in its execution and its executions (to the improbable tune of Eternity’s Sunrise by the British composer John Tavener), Savages is a violent ode to libertarian anarchism, before it turns dark at the end. It’s not as triumphant as the swamp rebellion in Beasts of the Southern Wild, the other film steeped in anarchism that is drawing a youth audience right now, but this one goes out with a bang in the desert, as the government swoops in and declares “Mission Accomplished”. Sound like the Iraq or Afghanistan?

If there weren’t so much pot in this movie, the Republicans might be using the “small business” revolution of “Savages” in their campaign. Not to worry. Their choice images of the Drug War, and the much more serious threat – immigration – are the much-published, much-filmed tunnels that lead under the border from Mexico into Arizona. I’m sure there’s a film in that setting, with all its horror-driven associations. Pick the director.


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