Savage is a loaded word. It is one of those rare linguistic products that feels like what it means. English being an uncontrolled language, derogatory terms are frequently repurposed, but savage remains. This is probably due to the fact that the word is inherently relative. Whether we use it to mean fierce or violent or primitive, it is always in relation to something that is less fierce, less violent or more civilized. They are always the savages, no matter how beautiful or noble they may be.
This very notion is at the heart of Oliver Stone’s new film, which is unabashedly based in a world of pulp and gore. In the movie, Chon, Ben and O(phelia) are young, beautiful and in love. They are also the producers of the best marijuana in the world. When Elena, queenpin of a powerful Mexican cartel, gets wind of this she decides to move in on their business. A few misplaced words leads to O’s kidnapping and Chon, being a brash veteran not too long removed from Afghanistan, decides the only way to deal with this act of war is to respond in kind. Although it takes place on U.S. soil and the belligerent actors are all private interests, this is ultimately a war film. Stone reveled in this in an interview with Film Comment, saying “I love the idea that this kid Chon just takes things in his own fucking hands… he gets his RPGs and his IEDs and he fucking does it with real hardcore veterans. I loved that idea of war coming home to roost.”
In that last sentence alone you could define the impetus for a number of Oliver Stone films. War always comes home. So, what happens, Stone asks, if we launch a hypocritical war on drugs while sending thousands of soldiers into an unnecessary war in Asia? Carnage, both mental and physical. This isn’t really a surprising position for the director. He has long since positioned himself as Hollywood’s preeminent “Leftist” filmmaker. You can be sure that Stone is highly critical of the ways in which American power, both in the past and present, has failed to live up the rhetoric it employs. A veteran of the Vietnam War, he has described how he went in believing that the war was a righteous one, only to discover what was really happening over there. While I’m not here to question his political affiliations, for a film that is so set in a very specific political context, from a filmmaker who rejects that he has a style but rather a “political vocabulary,” Savages offers up a deeply problematic worldview.
I am often cast as something of a cinematic apologist. In the critical discourse surrounding the seventh art, particularly in the subset emanating from the academic world, individual films and filmmakers are often taken to task as both causes and symptoms of one or more systems of oppression. From a theoretical standpoint, I tend to believe that almost the entirety of this brand of criticism rests upon a variety of false premises: a) that the artist/author has really disappeared, b) cinema is a perfectly mimetic art and c) cinema can only speak in universal terms. Thus, whatever a character does or does not is representative of the filmmaker and/or society’s view of that type of person. To put it more bluntly, and thereby keeping in tone with Savages, whatever, say, a Mexican woman does is indicative of the film(maker)’s view of both Mexicans and women.
As I stated, I often find myself the apologist. Firstly on the grounds that cinema’s voice rarely achieves any degree of universality. I say this before one can even posit that the default of universality in Western society is heterosexual white male. The art, perhaps all Art, I believe almost always declines universality to begin with. Now, this is not to say that the work cannot later be reinterpreted on a mass scale as universalizing, but we ought not begin with the belief that every film is seeking to make a statement about the entirety of mankind. Indeed, when films do this they often receive a fair amount of criticism for overstepping their bounds (see: Tree of Life). I do not believe any work can be divorced from its historical context, but films are products for the public, not by the public. Of course, this does not mean that they are not political, moral and social agents in their own right.
Savages may be still good for ‘committed leftist’ artists, if only because it may open this group up to greater self-scrutiny. For all its oblique indictments of a mode of thinking that would indict polyamory and marijuana as morally bankrupt at the same time it supports wars and assassinations, the film draws on such clichés and stereotypes as to make its casual racism impossible to ignore. It is rarely enough to entirely discount a work of art on the basis of a single flaw, even a grievous. Moby-Dick trades in some casual racism itself, but to cast the novel aside on account of this fact would be to ignore a great work of artists. This, however, is no Moby-Dick. What makes this film so confounding is that every character is either a stereotype or unimportant. Chon has seen war, isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and will never leave a man behind. Ben is a Berkeley liberal who believes in NGOs, good weed and saving Africa. O is a rich girl with daddy issues and a sense of entitlement. That’s it for the good guys.
The cartel is run by Elena, who follows in the footsteps of Cleopatra, even down to the bangs. Lado is an opportunistic underlord with little in the way of a conscience, save whatever is telling him to always look out for number one. A handful of others get quite a bit of screen time, but don’t have the time to develop. At first glance, there is nothing terrible about this lineup in spite of its racial coding. The Americans’ base of operations is Laguna Beach, California so even given a random selection of people you would have roughly an 85% chance of picking a non-hispanic Caucasian person. The cartel on the other hand is run by Mexicans, so, in spite of the unfortunate stereotype, it would be more surprising if all the higher-ups were of a different ethnicity.
Although there was some leeway to work with, Savages goes much further. Chon’s entire security team, made up of ex-SEALs, also appears to be of the same descent. One black member of the team is assassinated early in the film during a traffic stop where he begins to make a comment, ostensibly about his being pulled over because of the color of his skin. From then on, the good guys vs. bad guys can easily be read as the white people vs. Mexican people. Again, this would be easier to ignore if these were more fully drawn characters, or if the camera didn’t linger in nearly incessant close-ups on the bodies of O, Chon and Ben or if the film lived up to its hype as one wherein there “are no good guys.” It is true that there isn’t really any morally upstanding character. Everyone, it turns out, is willing to kill, torture and kidnap in the name of what they want.
But then, there’s Lado. Late in the film he provides the tiebreaker. Chon and Ben are introduced to us as good guys insofar as they provide a great product and have taken “99%” of the violence out of it. Of course, when necessary Chon can show up at a buyer’s door with a shotgun. Still, they aren’t the cartels. O’s kidnapping changes everything. As Ben acknowledges after they set up a cartel lawyer, they too are responsible for murders and torture. He says this moments before he proposes kidnapping Elena’s daughter as ransom for O. They are now officially even. Both grow, sell and distribute an illicit substance. Both have killed and tortured those who stood in their way and both are willing to take whatever their enemy loves. Then, just before the exchange is to take place, Lado sits down and shows O a video of him raping her while she was drugged. It is the most disturbing sequence of the film for obvious reasons, but it also demonstrates how much worse the bad guys are. So even if the film doesn’t cut as cleanly along the lines of good guys and bad guys, it’s quite willing to stake out the difference between bad ones and worse ones.
In all of this, we are thus pitched between beautiful white people who would be content to smoke weed, have orgasms and save the world if only they were left alone – and the Mexicans who try to infiltrate their organization and bully them into cooperation. If this were all the film had to go on, it would be easiest to simply state “it’s racist schlock” and should be avoided and condemned. It is not, however, that simple. Savages does offer something that is still rare, namely a strong, leading woman who is neither beholden to a man nor pursuing a man. She is power incarnate whose only weakness is the same as that of any demigod – the innocent humans she has become attached to. Notably it is not a husband (killed) or son (killed) whom she loves and desperately wants to be loved by, but her daughter. Lado’s case notwithstanding, love for and by women motivates all the main action of the film. If it weren’t such a bloody affair, Savages might just be a fanciful love story.
This leaves us with: a racist, stoner, action-packed, fairy tale of a love affair that promotes women to a place of nearly unimpeachable power. As the string of adjectives above makes clear, the film is a difficult one to walk away from with an easy stomach. Stone illustrates, whether intentionally or not, the difficulty faced in attempting to create popular, profitable, leftist films. Savages lays bare the diminishing returns of our drug/culture/military wars, but does so while indulging in a repulsive degree of Classic Hollywood racial coding. The merit of the film is thus based entirely on what exactly one walks into Savages expecting. As a stylistically faithful adaptation of the pulp genre it is a gem. As an example of a “political vocabulary” it is disappointing. In the past, I have wondered if a popular, profitable, politically left cinema is possible. Leaving the theater, I was afraid I had received my answer.