Hollywood Grind: Oliver Stone SAVAGES Himself
Oliver Stone is nobody's fool. So has he lost his mind?
His latest film, Savages, opens in theaters wide across North America today, and critical reaction has been mixed, with most critics either praising or denouncing it, with little middle ground. (Our own Jason Gorber was decidedly negative in his review.) As I was watching it at an advance screening earlier this week, I found myself increasingly disconnected, both from the film and the audience (which was eating it up), neither loving nor hating the experience.
Savages is more interesting thematically and more visually charged than Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps or World Trade Center, two routinely accomplished films that were too respectful of their source material to be compelling. Savages falls more in line with the other 21st Century dramatic features that Stone has directed, though it's less ambitious in every way than Alexander and more engaging than W., which fell prey to its apparent desire to be somewhat even-handed in its treatment of former U.S. President George W. Bush.
Still, as Savages unreeled and the audience gasped and laughed and groaned at things I didn't find that shocking or funny or distressing, my mind kept whirling back to earlier Stone films. Were they actually that much better? Had Stone lost his gifts?
Stone's best work has featured vibrant, larger-than-life characters who command attention. That was true in Salvador (James Woods), Platoon (Tom Berenger), and Wall Street (Michael Douglas). And it held form to somewhat lesser degree in the fascinating, oft frustrating The Hand (Michael Caine), Talk Radio (Eric Bogosian), Born on the Fourth of July (Tom Cruise), The Doors (Val Kilmer), Nixon (Anthony Hopins), Any Given Sunday (Al Pacino), and Alexander (Colin Farrell), as well as his documentary South of the Border (Hugo Sanchez).
The exceptions to the rule have been JFK (an ensemble film in which the lead character is dead), Natural Born Killers (an atonal mess), and U-Turn (an ensemble mess).
Eliciting excellent performances has rarely been a problem for Stone, which is a tribute to his skills as a director, and also points to his abilities as a screenwriter; he crafts stories and characters who are often magnetic and occasionally mesmerizing, even though they are not inclined to be "likable."
When he doesn't succeed, he's prone to crash spectacularly, as in Natural Born Killers or Nixon or Any Given Sunday or Alexander, all films that inflict torture upon the viewer for at least a portion of their running time. Yet they retain a sureness of vision, a semblance of confidence that what we see on screen is, basically, what Stone intended (with the exception of the theatrical cut of Alexander).
Savages, then, falls in the middle pack of Stone's films. What gives it urgency is its revisitation of the drug trade, which powered Stone's scripts for Midnight Express and Scarface.
Revolving around a trio of lovers, a kidnapping, and a passel of dead-eyed, dead-headed criminals, Savages proposes that two young men (Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson) can establish a leadership position in the Southern California drug trade and yet be so naive that they believe they can walk away from the demands of a powerful Mexican cartel that wants to muscle in on their territory.
So, yes, it's a fantasy, spun out of Don Winslow's acclaimed novel, a dream in which a drug-adled girl (Blake Lively) can hold the attention of two boys with homoerotic tendencies, as nicely observed by the Mexican drug lord, er, lady (Selma Hayek). Meanwhile, a bloodthirsty assassin (Benecio Del Toro) and a DEA agent (John Travolta) plot their own, sometimes interesecting, paths to fortune.
The early parts of the film unfold with such earnest dramatics that the comic touches appear to come out of nowhere, subsequently playing either as delightful surprises or stupid gaming, depending on your perspective. I'm in the latter camp, which contributed to my disappointed reaction. Stone experiments with tone more than ever, as the humor shifts from darkly ironic to brightly stupid, so that empathy for these foolish characters dissipates quickly.
Kitsch, Johnson, and Travolta are quite good, while Hayek and Del Toro seem to be acting in an alternative world, the telenovela version as seen by an American who can speak Spanish but has never watched more than a single episode of a telenovela. Lively effectively portrays the effects of smoking weed on a regular basis for an extended period of time.
Perhaps the ultimate lesson of Savages is that the drug war is unwinnable and that the nation's resoures would best be used in other endeavors. In that regard, it may be Oliver Stone's most sneakily political film ever, and proof positive that he has not lost his mind.
Savages is now playing in theaters across North America.