Although the convoluted plot, the shocking depictions of violence, and the heavy reliance on dialogue and character all suggest a rich, complicated film, the message of Oliver Stone’s Savages is in fact profoundly fundamental: Marijuana should be legalized. Without anyone directly saying it, we’re being told that its demonization by the American government alone has only given more power to drug cartels, specifically in Mexico, which currently dominates the wholesale illicit-drug market and controls 90% of the drugs that enter the United States. We don’t actually see kidnapped Mexican men getting decapitated with a chainsaw in a dimly-lit warehouse, but we do see the aftermath; we also see people getting bullets in their brains, stabbings, and even one person being set on fire. We don’t have to be told that this is needless and inhuman, but we are made wise to the fact that it stems from drug-related money and territorial disputes, which wouldn’t be if certain laws were changed.
Adapted from the novel by Don Winslow, the central character is a young woman named Ophelia, who prefers to be known as O (Blake Lively). “Just because I’m telling this story,” she says during the opening voiceover narration, “doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it.” It seemed like a decent, if ominous, introductory line, although we’re hard pressed to understand the logic behind it, even after the film has ended and everything has been explained. Regardless, we watch as her carefree life in Laguna Beach, California is irrevocably altered when she’s kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel under the leadership of Elena Sanchez, locally known as Elena La Reina (Salma Hayek). This came to pass when her two lovers, high school pals and marijuana growers Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), not only refused to make a business deal with the cartel but also insulted Elena.
Although they are friends, Ben and Chon come from completely different places. The former, a business and biology major from UC Berkeley, never went into the marijuana racket for money or power, and he sure as hell doesn’t want to kill anyone or even see to it that someone is killed. A pacifist and environmentalist, he actually uses his sizeable profits to fund clean water projects in destitute African villages. The latter, a U.S. Navy SEAL who has served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been trained to be a killer and believes not in ideals but in survival, where you take each individual moment as it comes. The only thing they have in common is their love for O, who they obviously don’t mind sharing. Love is precisely the reason they’re driven to desperate extremes in their rescue attempt. In ways he never thought possible, Ben will be tarnished by the experience.
So will O, who has essentially been living in a privileged fantasy world. I would wager she never really knew the lengths to which cartels can and do go in order to get a point across. She – and, to an extent, Ben and Chon – was comfortably nestled in a fool’s paradise this side of the border, sated by a beautiful beachfront house, extravagant shopping sprees, relaxing dinners, and ample supplies of homegrown pot. Her imprisonment is a bizarre series of contradictions: She’s chained by the ankles, yet she’s provided a bed, a toilet, toothpaste, and food; she’s under threat by the ruthless Elena, who in due time reveals her maternal side, prompted by the deaths of several of her children and the scorn of the two that survived, most notably her daughter (Sandra Echeverria). Elena claims that she inherited her late husband’s business, although that doesn’t account for perpetuating subhuman acts of vengeance. It’s about power, and nothing more.
As Ben and Chon work towards rescuing O, which involves obtaining very large sums of money in short periods of time, they have encounters with several side characters. One is Elena’s right-hand man, Lado (Benicio del Toro), who uses a gardening business as a front for offing people in cold blood. Another is Dennis (John Travolta), a corrupt DEA agent who, in the name of coming off as a big shot, always has to be one step ahead of everyone else. Although he makes it clear that he has two daughters and dying wife, we know that he’s in it for no one other than himself. Then there’s Spin (Emile Hirsh), who isn’t an accountant in the traditional sense of the word but still manages the finances.
O’s continuous narration gradually reveals a romanticized vision of life around drugs. It doesn’t become abundantly clear, however, until the final sequence – or, more accurately, the first part of the final sequence. I honestly don’t know how appropriate this part of the movie is; because each revelation yields the same passionate legalization message, it comes off mostly as a cinematic trick, a way for the filmmakers to indulge in pure technique. Savages is a competently made crime drama with very good performances, although I didn’t find it particularly compelling. It inundates us with twists and turns and intentionally disgusts us with horrendous acts of violence, and yet the message it ultimately delivers is so simple that one wonders if Stone needed to go to the lengths he went. That the message directly relates to a hot-button issue is a topic for another day.