Books and Arts

When Did Oliver Stone Lose His Spark of Big Ambition?

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Savages is trashy, vulgar, preposterous, crueland maybe the most interesting and entertaining film Oliver Stone has made since Nixon. What more do you want when the country is burning, gridlocked, and practicing ballet on the brink? Don’t say the movies lack instincts about where we’re headed. If you were in any doubt about this, Oliver lets the voiceover tell us that in our lower depths savagery has been legitimized, adding that movies have characters best rated as “beautiful savages.”

That voicenaggy, croaking, and deaf to the pretension of lines like, “he was looking for wargasm not orgasm”belongs to a young woman named O. Apparently that stands for Ophelia, but other choices are open, including zero. O is played by Blake Lively, a name that seems as far-fetched as her lines but is look-uppably authenticand ironic in that O is seemingly sedated by sun, sex, the gloss of advertising, the séance of weed, and her reluctance to think. You see, O is the uncritical bed- and bath-mate of two guys, Ben and Chon (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch), who manufacture marijuana rated at 33 percent, while the regular stuff is around five. I can’t vouch for these figures, any more than I can credit the several hundred ways in which Oliver believed JFK might have been offed. 

As scripted by Stone, Shane Salerno, and Don Winslow (working from the latter’s novel), the pot factory is in Laguna, south of Los Angeles, and it exists in a haze of complacency: That’s how the boys are millionaires on their lovingly nurtured pot, while O sees nothing but friendship in fucking them both, more or less at the same time (there is a vague, blurry attempt at a threesome, enough to show that while Oliver may have destroyed himself in some ways, his romanticism is still set in concrete). Everything in this garden seems lovely, until the Baja cartel reckons to carve up the Laguna booty. They make a money offer that shouldn’t be refused, but the Lagunans are idealistic, or stupid. When they resist, the Mexicans kidnap O.

This is an unkind mercy. Unkind because Lively becomes rapidly unlovely under the imprisoned stress, but a mercy in that the swaggering gang is a gallery of engaging supporting acting. I was going to say “character acting” but “character” would be misleading. The people in question are cartoonish, the thing that made film noir so spiffy in the late ’40s. The Baja mob has a field captain, played by Benicio Del Toro, who seems to know he will never be cast as anything but a lout. This depresses him: He feels older and sadder now. But he can curdle the camera and unnerve O with one gloomy look. Then there is Alex Reyes, played by an even finer actor, Demian Bichir, who was nominated for an Oscar in A Better Life, but is now taking a role as formulaic as Omar the nasty but craven F. Murray Abraham part in the 1983 Scarface (which was written by Oliver).

I have saved the best rogues for last. The Baja network is led by Elena (Salma Hayek), who looks like Cleopatra but behaves like Robert Mitchum. Del Toro sighs whenever he looks at her, as if realizing this is the most striking performance Hayek has given (and I haven’t forgotten Frida, though I’ve tried). Better yet is a corrupt cop, Dennis, who provides one more return for John Travolta. That actor has been busy lately, though he has not made a decent film since A Civil Action. Whatever else has befallen him, the shape of his head seems to have altered. I don’t want to be hostile or unduly personal: I like Travolta, even in rubbishand he has been generous with that test material.

So there are four appealing supports to this ramshackle film, along with a few extras: Del Toro has a female accomplice (Amber Dixon) who says nothing, but doesn’t need to. She may have been paid good money to remain silent. The talk is pastiche and pulpy, but it rips along with the same zest that Oliver gives to the action. It’s as if the director has kidnapped the film and threatened the storyline with whipping if it doesn’t keep moving.

In the movies, constant movement has often been a disguise for lack of tolerable emotion, or what Oliver used to call “ideas.” Remember when he took on Big subjects? In that era, Robert Richardson was his director of photography, and they brewed a feverish, hot-sauce glaze that suited Oliver’s hallucinating sense of history. Richardson has moved on to Scorsese and Tarantino, so Savages has Dan Mindel as cameraman, and he does a spectacular job at making us feel that the film stock has been soaked in sun, drugs and what Hollywood seems to think of as “Mexican-ness.” This look is poisonous with the assumptions of advertisingand racist, as Mexicans in American movies were for decades stuck as comic or treacherous figures. But Oliver doesn’t seem to see now that the methodical abuse of Mexico could be a Big subject. He is infatuated with his mock theory that the wretched world has become the playground of beautiful savages.

This is a version of an old fallacy, like believing Hitler and Stalin were mad, instead of evil leaders who counted on the urge in millions of ordinary, weak people to be conformists. It’s the humbug of radiant rottenness that gives kids like Blake Lively a few years in movies and gossip columnsin fact, she was far more striking in The Town, playing a hopeless, fading piece of scum. That’s her beckoning career trackshe should consider Del Toro and Hayek in this film, and hope to be as vibrant and intelligent as Salma is at the age of forty-five.

As for the guys, they are very boring and earnest: In melodrama like this, those two defects go together. The film would have been so much more interesting if the two men had been identical twins played by the same actorlike Jeremy Irons in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. That way, O would never have known which guy she was fucking and the theoretical differences between the two men (wargasm/orgasm) might have become a game such as Bunuel played in That Obscure Object of Desire. But while Oliver Stone has always been eager to take flight on melodrama, paranoia and Significance, he remains a dogged and dull realist, unaware of the demented potential in scenes with players named Lively and Kitsch.

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