Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Violence and Disparity: An Analysis of Oliver Stone's Savages

Oliver Stone’s career has spanned over four decades and in that time he has garnered acclaim and multiple awards, suffered harsh criticisms, and tried his hand at a variety of genres. Returning to the visceral, violent world that helped propel him to stardom, Stone’s latest offering, Savages, appeals more towards film theorists than it does to the general cinema-goer. Packed full of altering aesthetics and sinuous structures, Savages is much more developed than one would initially think. It is by no means a great movie (screenplay issues, some bland acting and chaotic editing prevent it from being such) but it makes for a great film – perfect for study and critical evaluation.

Stone may not always entertain with his films but you can seldom argue that they aren’t interesting in one way or another. As I watched Savages I was not completely drawn in by the story or characters, but became enthralled at the mass of film art and theory that Stone was throwing at me (or at least I like to think he was). Often in the film there were themes and styles that shone out and, from here on in, I hope to scrutinise them.

Here is a quick description of the plot to make the reading of this essay slightly easier:
Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and O (Blake Lively) all live free and easy thanks to a thriving cannabis business. After reaping the benefits of fruitful dealings, they finally decide to head off to a foreign country to live life off the grid. However, a drug lord named Elena (Salma Hayek) thinks it’s better to keep Ben and Chon around town and use their expertise and networks and holds O hostage to make sure they keep their feet firmly planted in California. It’s now up to Ben and Chon to do everything in their power to get O back and settle the score with the ruthless drug baroness.

Spoilers follow.


Stone has looked at the theme of duality in dozens of his films and never seems to tire of the motif. Platoon’s observation of ethics and instincts/morals and survival, The Doors’ chronicle of innocence and conviction (additionally referenced in JFK and Nixon), Wall Street’s examination of legality and illegality, and finally, Natural Born Killers’ critique of desensitisation and distaste have all contributed to Savages’ making. Stone’s new film deals with the parallels and paradoxes of good versus evil, high-art and low-art and Shakespearian machinations as thoroughly as ever. Stone uses elements of narrative, characterisation and aesthetics to highlight these issues and (characteristically dealing with duality) is both brazen and subtle in his approach.

The Shakespearian angle is apparent but only obvious in certain realms of the film. The most obvious is Blake Lively’s Ophelia/“O” who’s name draws immediate attention to the Bard’s influence. Having already dealt with the theme of political transition and the handling of power in such films as Nixon, W. and Wall Street, the other Shakespearian theme closely analysed is the impossibility of certainty. The latter is by far most exemplified in Hamlet and in Savages Stone toys with the idea periodically. The end of the film is perhaps the best example of Stone subverting expectations and collapsing the notion of certainty. After Ben and Chon go through extreme lengths to get O back from the kidnappers there is hope that the Hollywood formula will kick in and they will retrieve her safe and sound. In true Oliver Stone fashion, the “happy ending” is graphically annihilated and we believe the film will end on a lingering shot of the three leads dying. What happens next is a daring and ludicrous narrative U-turn whereby O states there are lies in truth and explains what “really happened”. The film then suddenly rewinds itself to show an alternate final showdown. It can be argued that the epilogue showing O, Ben and Chon living on some tropical island, post-shoot out, is a figment of their imagination (popular cinema seems to tiresomely rife with this concept ever since Inception) and a “true” conclusion is to be decided over by the viewer.

There is further evidence to suggest that Savages’ narrative crux, as narrated by O, is elaborately falsified in sections. As O explains at the start, her name has close associations with the “bipolar bitch in Hamlet” which is apt for her presentation. Stone regularly alters the colour grading of O’s scenes – switching between colour and greyscale palettes to recognise her indistinct nature. O is written as a lost and naive individual who always depends on fate and destiny yet never extrapolates the problems that that dogma has. When we hear introduce the story with the ultimatum, “Just because I'm telling you this story... doesn't mean I'm alive at the end of it”, we as an audience are equally as unsure about the concept of truth as she is.

This brings us on to the subject of pretending. Many plot sequences revolve around altercations and many characters adopt masks (literally and figuratively) to protect themselves. The amount of double-crossings or zealous negotiations is forever troublesome due to characters acting selfishly or under some sort of guise. Changes of form in characters is regular in Shakespeare’s plays (Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Venetian masques in Much Ado About Nothing and Rosalind’s obsession with masks in As You Like It) and whereas there is little in the way of people morphing into donkeys there is a clear desire of Stone’s to implement these historical literary themes. The overt illustration of this theme is the Dia de los Muertos masks and balaclavas that half a dozen characters wear in certain scenes. I noted – perhaps rather pretentiously/farcically – that Salma Hayek’s character dons face cream at one point in the film further implying an attention to the subject of appearance. It broadens the enigmatic facade of Hayek’s Elena who conceals her voice during business communications and uses her gender, technological red herrings and make-up to mask an identity. She is fabricated out of cosmetics, costumes and wigs and hides behind a wall of maids and butlers to deter any indication as to who she is. Elena’s drug boss is thought to be a man by many of the criminals who have never seen a face or heard a distinct voice; she becomes both the most elusive character and the most powerful one. Whether elusiveness creates power or power leads to mystery is something to be questioned. In either case it is the subject of enigma that becomes the main source of dramatic events.

Providing drama in a film has always been one of Stone’s strong suits, with duality becoming one of the many elements that creates such tension. The classic device of good versus evil is not always at the crux of Stone’s narratives but for Savages he unremittingly uses that feature. Divides in morality in Savages are as straightforward as any Hollywood blockbuster but on occasion Stone plays with these conventions. He sets up the two groups of drug manufacturers and drug lords but never completely shows them as two opposing groups. We understand how one party is ethical whilst the other is animalistic (Benicio Del Toro being the prominent face of the beasts) but frequent matching images work to dissuade a definite opinion. For example, one scene shows Chon stabbing John Travolta’s DEA agent in the hand is then followed by a shot of Benicio Del Toro cutting in to a piece fruit. A foray of bookended images is common in Savages and makes the audience continually aware of each side acting in similar fashions thus clouding our judgement. For instance, Chon and Ben setting up a robbery (looking through binoculars at their targets) is preceded by Elena’s CCTV view of O chained up in captivity. The bookending of images can seem impressive if done right and not superfluously and Stone’s utilisation of it is forever interesting. Much like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s treatment of matching images in some panels throughout Watchmen, Stone is delivering a mirage of identities by way of crafty imagery. The lengths that each group go to get what they want are unmistakably callous and despite the audience following Ben and Chon they aren’t classic role models. This approach to character evaluations is also an interesting way to draw on the importance of the title. As O mentions at the end, the definition of “savage” draws on matters of innate qualities of humans. Seeing the mirrored images makes one aware of an evolution of appearance or, at least, alterations in perception.


You are constantly reminded of the title within the film; a character may use the word once or twice or you find a variety of other aspects that bring to mind the intensity of the term “savage”. Stone’s fascination with violence is not shown in an exploitative light and where he implements moments of brutality within his films he never makes it out to be an element of entertainment (discounting some of the presentation in Natural Born Killers). Savages includes some highly graphic moments of violence that always shock for the right reasons. The film begins with a pan across a line of tortured bodies, some having lost their heads in an interrogation; it proves a worthy indicator as to how Stone plans to direct his film and the extent to which he will capitalise on the viciousness of drug trafficking. Complete with an expert sound mix, the visceral aspect of fights and deaths can often seem intense beyond belief. The stab, the shot or the slam of action boom and rumble through the surround sound making you jump at each clash.

Becoming startled by the many skirmishes comes partially from the tension Stone creates by disparate atmospheres – the cool and calm versus the rough and ready (partly paralleling the loosened feeling that comes from smoking marijuana and the occasional after-effects of paranoia or extending to the context of perilous drug-running). At the heart of the story are O’s two male lovers, each of whom behaves in opposing ways. This has little to no effect on their relationship with O and one another but in a broader perspective it means a great deal. O does draw attention to the contrary personas right from the very beginning; Chon is an aggressive, almost-feral civilian soldier and Ben presents himself as a relaxed intellect with neo-Buddhist philosophies. The two friends may not see eye-to-eye with most matters, and their approach to business can often create friction. When Ben becomes embroiled in the kidnapping and has to change his ways and purposefully harm his fellow man there is no telling what chaos will ensue.

Having no character grounded by morals leads to impulsive undertakings that mostly result in danger or death. Ben’s rage is less damaging than Chon’s but the former puts much more on the line in denouncing his pacifist ideologies. Ben is the average man (albeit in some inconceivable situations) whose advocating of violence implicates the basic flaw of man – an innate ability to hurt and destroy when pushed to the limit. Hayek’s Elena may also seem relatively serene at points and a person not completely devoid of morals but a short warning to O that, “if I had to, I wouldn’t have a problem cutting both their [Ben and Chon’s] throat’s” supports Savages’ overall message that people can and will do what they want to remain powerful and unchallenged.

Alongside the notion that power can be attained is the conception of immortality and legacy. Ben and Chon’s business is booming and their brand seems to be something that could have its own supermarket isle. As well as their partnership, Elena and her group hope to become successful and mythological with their reputation. The all-powerful and legendary image is supported by a wealth of film posters and titles scattered throughout Savages. As well as the images of death and the grotesque seen with the Dia de los Muertos masks there are several posters of monster movies; Stone intent on showing the fragility of life and shadowy figures of the darkness. Ben and Chon’s house includes posters for old Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi flicks that are staples of the horror genre, and The Bride of Frankenstein is also seen showing at a local cinema in the background to a scene involving Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta. These always act as a reminder of the macabre and perhaps strange influences on Stone’s feature. They also compliment the Shakespearian motifs such as kingdoms and ghosts and how many men become monsters or are tormented by the mystical in their aim to lead.

Shakespeare it’s not but Stone has included a great deal of thoughtful nuances that say more when under critical analysis. Savages is all about the myth of equilibrium, ambiguous impressions of yin and yang, and bloody violence. The criminal underworld is teeming with thousands of eclectic characters and Stone’s attempt to show this works at times. His decision to magnify the harshness and ambivalence of drug kingpins’ rise to power is something he does better with. He leaves you with the thought that we can never let go of our red-blooded instincts but at times it can be viewed in a positive light because it leads to passion. Stone’s passion was to make a film about weed and criminality and for the most part he succeeds.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Blogomatic3000. Review here

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