'Savages' Review: Stone's Shakespearean Ode to Drug Violence

The American Heritage College Dictionary says the noun “savages” can be applied to individuals who are “primitive or uncivilized” and those who are “brutal, fierce or vicious.”

In director Oliver Stone’s new film, two types of people are identified as savages: monsters who use intense violence to achieve their objectives and two men who share a physical relationship with the same woman. Both types of individuals go head to head in "Savages," an intoxicating, violent drama about the drug trade.

The woman at the heart of the story is the beautiful O (Blake Lively), who was named after Ophelia, the tragic Shakespearean character whose love for the vengeful but passionate Hamlet led her to self-destruction. But unlike that tragic figure, O’s love extends to two men: business partners who grow and sell marijuana together despite their dissimilarities.

Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson star as Chon and Ben, O’s love interests. Chon is a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan while Ben is a charitable activist who believes in non-violence. In the way that O describes it, Chon is Earth and Ben is spirit. Chon is a violent criminal while Ben is a cool-headed pacifist.

Ben may sound better, but Chon knows how dangerous the drug trade is and is willing to do whatever is necessary to survive and thrive in an industry where violence is often the first—not the last-- resort.

The plot revolves around a possible deal between Chon and Ben and a drug cartel led by the psychotic Elena (Salma Hayek). Elena wants to make a deal with the two friends, but when they reject her ungracious offer, she punishes them. The boys try to run, but Elena’s reach is far and soon O is being held captive by the menacing Lado (Benicio Del Toro), Elena’s right-hand man.

All of the characters in this film have an agenda, but when their goals collide with others, they are treated like pawns on Stone’s grand chess board. In this game of mayhem and manipulations, each move by one of the players is undermined by their opponent’s actions, and all of the players are soon enmeshed in a dangerous situation where no one is safe and none of them is innocent.

Stone’s cast is remarkably strong, but a few of the actors deserve special recognition. Kitsch, who starred in box office disasters "John Carter" and "Battleship," gets an excellent chance to shine here. Unlike the heroes he played in those two films, Kitsch’s violent character is a much darker type which seems to fit more closely with the tough guy he played on television's "Friday Night Lights."

Hayek, Del Toro and John Travolta as a DEA agent all enjoy moments in the spotlight during their stellar supporting turns. A scene between Travolta and Del Toro is particularly noteworthy as each man seeks to psychologically undercut the other.

It should be noted that "Savages" is full of violence and features a few prominent torture sequences. But these scenes work appropriately in a movie that isn’t afraid to show the dark sides of the illegal drug industry. As Shon notes early on, “you let people think you’re weak, sooner or later, you’re gonna have to kill ‘em.”

"Savages" isn’t for everyone, but this Stone saga—adapted from the Don Winslow novel—is a brilliantly-told tale of power, corruption and uncivilized people who use violence and murder to achieve success. And in the end, they all—to one extent or another—become savages.


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