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Often I'm asked, "What's the worst movie ever made?" and I say, "I don't know, but my own least favorite is Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers." The early script by Quentin Tarantino was heavily revised, and the final film became a celebration of serial killers, now existential heroes with absolute freedom. Beyond the bombardment that was Stone's direction, the worldview was abominable.
The thriller Savages is in the same brutal, druggy realm of Natural Born Killers, but Stone has evolved in the past decade and a half, and the new film has a deeper, more complicated perspective. The violence isn't a kick. It's horrifying, senseless. Amid the mayhem, you think, "It didn't have to go down this way."
Why does it? Business. That was the point of Stone's last film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps — that business could ravage anything, even family. The family in Savages is surrogate but ideal. It's a menage a trois: two buddies, Chon and Ben, and their rich California girlfriend, O, short for Ophelia, who narrates. Their business is growing marijuana, innovative strains of it, using part of their profits to build villages in Africa. Aaron Johnson's Ben is the idealist, Taylor Kitsch's Chon the angry, haunted Iraq War vet; the men are opposites, loved equally by Blake Lively's O because together, she tells us, they form the perfect whole.
It's a remarkably gentle arrangement until harsh reality intrudes in the form of a video e-mail sent from the Baja cartel, in which a man in a skull mask displays seven severed human heads. The Mexicans demand a share of Chon and Ben's business in return for giving them wider distribution — and the corrupt local DEA agent, Dennis, played by John Travolta, thinks their course of action should be a no-brainer.
Pot-bellied, with thinning hair, Travolta gives his best performance in ages as a man who's thoroughly amoral but not inhuman. He's a realist, and the reality, he thinks, is that the war on drugs is insane and breeds more insanity. He rationalizes taking a piece of everything because he has kids to support and a terminally ill wife.
Every character talks about his or her family, even the scariest, the Mexican assassin Lado, played with demonic gravity by Benicio Del Toro, his face all black hollows. Lado's boss, Elena, is played with relish by Salma Hayek in a jet-black Prince Valiant wig. Elena took over the cartel after the deaths of her husband and sons and says of her daughter, the only family left, "She's ashamed of me, and I'm proud of her for it."
To get Chon and Ben to cooperate, she has Lado steal what they love best — O, a kidnap victim just mouthy and entitled enough to appeal to Elena's motherly instincts.
Are Ben and Chon more in love with each other? It's not clear, since they pull out all the stops to get O back. Even Ben the humanitarian will do anything, no matter how ghastly, for the sake of his family.
Savages is based on a book by Don Winslow that reads like notes for the screenplay he co-wrote with Shane Salerno and Stone. The narrative gets looser as the movie goes on, the characters' mixed-up emotions forcing the melodrama off its tracks. But the melodrama comes back with a vengeance, an infernal machine that can't be turned off. Stone the cackling nihilist of Natural Born Killers is now Stone the tragic romantic.