How about taking the edge off with a trip to the beach, a nugget of Master Kush and possibly getting kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel and having your head chopped off? This is director Oliver Stone’s vision for Savages, an O.C.-centric "beach noir" based on the popular novel by Don Winslow (who also helped write the screenplay). Though the film is somewhat off-kilter, it's a gripping tale with a premise that shoots across the screen like a bullet leaving the chamber of a gun.
The story follows Ben (Aaron Johnson), a Berkeley graduate with a penchant for botany and philanthropy, Chon (Taylor Kitsch), an ex-military brute, and Ophelia a.k.a. O (Blake Lively), the narrator and the pot-smoking queen who sits atop the movie's love triangle. Taking bong rips and having lots of vivid sex, the trio enjoys the fruits of Ben and Chon’s pot-growing business, one that gains international attention when a Mexican drug cartel tries to strike up a deal. Ben and Chon’s failure to commit leaves O in a precarious position and the film in a freefall. Where is rock bottom? You won’t find it here.
The acting isn’t spectacular. It’s hard not to laugh at John Travolta’s haircut and tweaker persona, while big Tim Riggins—I mean, Taylor Kitsch—plays a character that most Friday Night Lights fans will recognize. (Remember that episode when Tim and Jason go to Mexico for a sketchy shark-blood surgery? It’s like that but 90 minutes longer and with guns.)
On the cartel side, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek and Demián Bichir lend the film a dark luster with their gritty portrayals of drug lords. As Lado, a smarmy, cold-blooded sociopath who keeps his bosses happy and get his money even if it means killing his own henchmen, Del Toro is especially menacing.
Stone, unsurprisingly, takes a voyeuristic approach. The pervasive gore as well as the beatings, sex, and rape scenes are like train wrecks: You won’t be able to stop watching, no matter how many times you ask yourself “What the hell just happened?” That the payoff feels realistic is a credit to Stone and Winslow.
The movie is lurid and sometimes over-the-top, but Savages peels back the glorified SoCal surfer lifestyle to peek at its tainted underside in a way that's splashy and compelling. Though the film is bookended with O's superfluous laments, Savages has plenty of gems—even for moviegoers who shield their eyes when a severed head rolls across the screen.
Photograph courtesy Collider.com