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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Savages



SAVAGES  (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Oliver Stone, 2012

Oliver Stone’s new movie Savages is adapted from a very knowing and very violent crime thriller: Don Winslow’s novel about contemporary drug wars in  California and Mexico. And it’s full of extreme violence, sex, bloodshed, socio-political expose’ and bizarre humor  — the kind of stuff that modern action movies usually try give us, but here executed with more style, punch and political consciousness. I liked it, except for an awful ending that I wish Stone would dump.

The movie, which was scripted by Stone, Winslow and Shane Salerno.  is about an independent marijuana growing operation, run by two yin and yang best buddies — Taylor Kitsch (of John Carter)  as Chon the tough, cynical Iraq War veteran and Aaron Johnson (of the John Lennon bio-drama Nowhere Boy) as Ben, the gentler, more idealistic botanist/business guy. Their shared blonde girlfriend, rich-kid playgirl Ophelia, or “O,” is played by Blake Lively, who also narrates the movie and she informs us right away that that just because she’s telling us everything now, it doesn’t mean that she will survive to the end of the story. Like William Holden in Sunset Blvd., O may be narrating from beyond the grave.

These three lead a sort of idyllic hippie-outlaw-rich-druggie existence (like young, successful moviemakers maybe), with lots of money to spend, lots of ganja to smoke, and lots of sheets to get tangled in — in paradisiacal surroundings on Laguna Beach, drenched in the blazing colors and the lush foliage of beachside life on the Pacific, as shot by cinematographer Dan Mindel. Then their dream world begins to crumble. The guys receive some videos of people who’ve had their heads chain-sawed off: other independent growers who unwisely didn’t heed an invitation/warning to join up with a powerful Mexican drug cartel — run by a sultry-looking, seemingly cold-blooded boss-lady named Elena (Salma Hayek), her ruthless, sleepy-eyed chief enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro).  and her mob mouthpiece (Demian Bichir).

These three — along with John Travolta as a balding, pudgy two-faced Drug Enforement Agency agent named Dennis, a snake who plays everybody against each other, and keeps gabbing about his sick wife — make up one of the best, most entertaining sets of movie villains in recent memory. Especially Del Toro — who’s so damned scary (maybe the most morally empty and deadly movie heavy since Javier Bardem‘s Sugar in No Country for Old Men) that you can’t take  your eyes off him — unless it‘s to look at Salma, or unless it‘s to marvel at how seedy Travolta and his make-up men have made Dennis. Hayak, Del Toto and Travolta show that three savvy vets can usually steal a movie from three pretty kid stars, any day of the week.

But the kids have their moments. Chon, the cynic, doesn’t really trust any outsiders, and especially not Elena‘s crew. Ben, the dreamer,  trusts too many people and wants to retire anyway. So they take a little too long answering the cartel‘s offer, and Lado gets trigger-happy. The war is on — and eventually Elena and Lado have one hostage (O) and Ben and Chon (or Cheech and Chong as Lado calls them) have another: Elena’s daughter Magda (Sandra Echevarria). And we’re all set up for a final showdown and maybe even a Rio Bravo-style hostage exhange. Except that this is a meaner story and it has a meaner ending…


…. Or to be more precise, it has two endings: One mean, one sappy. (The endings are connected by a kind of backtrack device that may have been partly inspired by the rewind scene in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games.) That second “happy” ending really hurts the picture, which should have ended right where Winslow’s book did. (I agree with Josh Katz.) Savages should have had the meaner, bleaker, darker ending. But Stone, unaccountably (it’s hard to believe Winslow would have wanted this) has made the same mistake he made in Natural Born Killers — trying to clean up a down-and-dirty, violent, terrifying ending that would be much better if he left it down and dirty.

In the release version of Natural Born Killers, outlaw-lovers-on-the-run Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are supposedly shown at the end, driving off happily in their Winnebago, a resolution which, the way it plays now, seems artistically fatuous and sleazily amoral, and is probably responsible for the raps Natural Born Killers keeps taking (unfairly I think) for being an amoral sleazy movie.

Actually, Natural Born Killers had a fantastic ending.  (Tarantino’s maybe? Anyway, you can see that variant in the special editions of N.B.K., as the “alternative ending” with the deleted scenes.) The happy family scene that resolves the movie now was not originally intended as “reality,”  but as a last second vision of false happiness (like the false “escape” of the hanged man in  Ambrose Bierce’s Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge) flickering through the heads of the dying Mickey and Mallory, who’ve just been killed by the mysterious character (played by  Arliss Howard) who’s been dogging their trail through the entire movie.

That’s a great ending, a classic film noir ending,  almost as good as the dark last scenes of  Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity or Sunset Blvd. And if Stone had left it in place, I think Natural Born Killers might be generally regarded today as a classic neo-noir and not attacked by some (with some justification, I have to admit) as an amoral mess.

It’s The Getaway Fallacy. “The Getaway” is one of Jim Thompson’s best books, a masterpiece of suspense and terror with a stunning ending, but it’s now been made into a movie twice, and messed up twice, by directors as brilliant as Sam Peckinpah (in 1972) and as normally sensible as Roger Donaldson (in 1994) with scripts both times by the usually reliable Walter Hill. And all these gifted gents keep giving The Getaway  the phony, upbeat ending they (or somebody) think audiences want, instead of  the great dark breathtakingly bleak and pessimistic last chapter Thompson wrote. (Check out the book and see if you don’t agree with me.) The Peckinpah Getaway was a big hit, but it was still a mistake. And now Stone has now fallen prey to The Getaway Fallacy twice, and tacked “crowd-pleasing” endings onto two movies that were meant to be downbeat, and could have been great, if they were. Imagine our displeasure if The Coen Brothers had succumbed to The Getaway Fallacy when they made No Country for Old Men, and had Josh Brolin and Kelly Macdonald escape over the border with the drug money — maybe with Woody Harrleson (and Juliette Lewis) tagging along. Does anybody really want to see that movie?

We can only hope (and I do) 0that someday Stone makes alternative cuts of both Natural Born Killers and Savages (he doesn’t even have to call them “director’s cuts”), restoring them to the dark grandeur they should have had.


Like most of Stone’s better movies — Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers, Any Given Sunday, and his sripts for Midnight Express and ScarfaceSavages shows an American Dream (of sorts) taking an edgy dive into American Nightmare. And it’s written and directed with wild bursts of energy and eroticism and moneyed savagery, wrapped around a vision of the dark side of American and Mexican life, with a crime-thriller plot that explodes like a tabloid bomb. Here, he seems to be back in the kind of territory he knows and does best, with a cast that can deliver the goods. And they do. At least the vets. Now, if only we could talk Sone into getting rid of that second ending…



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4 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: Savages”

  1. Matthew Dowd says:

    Matthew Dowd says: Oliver Stone is CIA.

  2. irene sobel says:

    Here’s the link to Armond White’s Margaret review:

  3. Sars says:

    Dude, De Palma directed Scarface….

  4. I love this movie and the sound track is wonderful.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon