Friday, July 6, 2012

Savages [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -
Spanish language press / reviews -
La Jornada (Cuidad de México / Mexico City) [ESP-orig, ENG-trans]
La Opinión (Los Angeles) [ESP-orig, ENG-trans]
Hoy (Chicago) [ESP-orig, ENG-trans]

Savages (directed and cowritten by Oliver Stone along with Shane Salerno and Don Winslow [IMDb] based on Don Winslow's book by the same name) is a very brutal film about the contemporary drug trade.  The film definitely deserves its R rating and while I do understand/appreciate the concept of parental discretion I'd honestly prefer that the film be rated NC-17 because I can't think of a single reason why someone under 17 would have a compelling need to see it.

That said, I would _not_ go so far as to object to the film's being made.  If we honestly believe in freedom, we have to give the artistic community the right to explore topics (and in ways) that we may find disturbing and allow the (fully adult/voting/responsible) members of our society the freedom to reflect on them.  I simply believe in the honest application of our society's age-based (MPAA) movie rating system and then in the right of critical community including that of the Church (note the CNS/USCCB's review) to warn (1) that any given movie may not be "for everyone" and especially not for the young, and (2) that there are some real moral problems with the film or presented in the film.

And that is certainly the case with the film here: The violence of this movie would immediately make the film "not for" a great many potential viewers who would be disturbed by such displays of mayhem (and certainly wouldn't want to _pay_ or otherwise waste their time being arguably assaulted by such displays).  Similarly, the drug use / sexual hedonism portrayed in the film would again offend another whole set of viewers.  And the Church certainly has a right to say the obvious: "This is _not_ the way we believe that God wants us to live.  And the Machiavelian/amoral/cynical values presented in this film are not the values by which we believe that God wants us to follow." 

Still, given that both Winslow and Stone named their book/film "Savages" would suggest that they would agree more (obviously not completely...) with the Church on this than one could initially think.  To name a book/film "Savages" would imply that the writer/film-makers are making a rather strong critical comment about the lives of the characters in their story.  And I do believe that amidst the blood, drug use and otherwise utterly amoral and unreflective hedonism, this opinion is borne out.

Further, the film (and presumably the book) mashes two trends in the contemporary drug trade, still largely illegal, that ought to give a lot of people some pause: (1) There has been a brutal drug war taking place for the past six years south of the border in Mexican that may not necessarily make the English-language press in the United States on a daily basis, but certainly is present in the Spanish-language press (Telemundo [ENG-Trans] , Univision [Eng-Trans], La Opinion (Los Angeles, CA) [ENG-Trans], Hoy-Chicago [ENG-Trans]). (2) There has been a trend in recent years to cultivate "genetically enhanced" marijuana domestically in the United States under the guise of producing it for "medical" needs.  This domestically grown "boutique" marijuana tends to have a much higher THC content (making it much more potent) and hence is considered far superior to more conventionally grown varieties trafficked into the U.S. by the drug cartels.

The book/movie present the scenario in which a Mexican drug cartel led by Elena "The Madrina" (played by Salma Hayek) and her henchmen Lado (played by Benicio del Toro) and Alex (played by Dermián Bichir) "take interest" in a highly rated "boutique marijuana" being produced by two Southern California natives Ben (played by Aaron Johnson) and Chon (played by Taylor Kitsch), the two having been friends since childhood.

Ben who had been a double major at UC Berkeley in business and botany was the technical "guru" in the operation.  Chon, an ex-Navy SEAL who had served tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan, provided collection/enforcement and protection services as needed.  He also brought back from Afghanistan seeds from an already potent strain of marijuana which Ben improved upon to make their ultra-profitable product.  At the beginning of the story, the two were running their still small-scale but highly profitable operation from their cliff-side Laguna Beach villa with their girl friend "O" (for Ophelia played by Black Lively), which "they shared."

Their whole lifestyle, from living-off of a still largely illegal trade, dependent always on at least some violence (hence why Chon, the ex-Navy SEAL was part of the equation...) to living it up in a cliff-side villa in Laguna Beach outside of L.A. built so obviously to scream their material success (and making them all the more dependent making lots of money to maintain their style of living) to Ben / Chon's "sharing" of "O" in again such a loud/screaming way without any regard to any kind of morality or consequence ... all would be from the Catholic/Christian perspective absolutely appalling.  (And interestingly enough even the Mexican drug dealers, as vicious as they were, are shown to honestly find the lifestyle of the American trio to be "savage" in its own way).  But until the Mexican cartel comes knocking, the trio in its own eyes is "living the dream:"  They were young, rich, attractive, messing-around in every which way ... they seem to have Life by the throat.

But the Mexican drug cartel does come knocking... And the party soon changes.  Why would they be interested in a "boutique" operation like theirs?  Well, as Dennis (played by John Travolta) a DEA agent. who Ben and Chon payoff to keep any legal trouble away, explains "Consider the Drug Cartel to be 'WalMart' and you two 'Ben and [Chon]'s.'  They just want to expand their 'product line' and be able to sell 'Ben and [Chon]'s' in 'Aisle 3' of their store."

And actually when Alex and Lado first meet with Ben and Chon they try to make their offer as "business like" as they can ("You two continue to get 80% of the profits over the first 3 years while you train our people in your operation ...").  It's just that as far as the Cartel was concerned, their offer was meant as one that Ben and Chon "could not refuse..."  When they try, the rest of the movie un-spools from there ...

So there is actually a moral message in the story (amidst the haze of drugs, violence and general immorality) ... one that all of us probably could understand and perhaps, even have some experience with (though hopefully on a "smaller scale"): When one is playing with something that is "Outside the Reservation" (that is, Evil in some way), one generally doesn't even know how it all turn around to bite one ... and in ways that one could hardly imagine.

Those three living it up in their cliff-side Laguna Beach house with their "boutique" marijuana business didn't have a clue of what they were in for...

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1 comment:

  1. I saw this film today and loved it. I wasn't looking for a moral lesson. I was looking for an edgy thriller that would get me invested in the plot to the point that I would feel the fear, pain and excitement. In that respect, it was nearly perfect.

    There were some weak moments, and the ending lacked the punch of the first 120 minutes, but I'm not complaining. If I had to pick one actor who overwhelmed, it would be Benicio del Toro who was totally believable as Lado.

    Sorry I don't have any deep insights today. This was just a superb film for pure enjoyment. Thank you Oliver Stone for going back to what you do so well.