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Savages: When Oliver Stone Broke Bad With a Twisty Thriller and a Killer Cast

Guns, ganja, and a drug-fueled lovers’ triangle — welcome to Stone’s twisted take on the high-stakes war for weed supremacy.

By Benjamin Bullard
O (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) appear in Savages (2012).

Oliver Stone plays with pop and political culture’s knives and razors like they’re toys in a kids’ meal box. From the pastiche of conspiracy in JFK (1991) to the gonzo blood spatter of Natural Born Killers (1994) to the seriously slept-on desert destitution of U Turn (1997), no time or place in the annals of American ambition is safe from his incisive — and even often divisive — director’s eye.

Stone’s entire career is a sort of aesthetically-skewed panopticon; one that equally zooms both out and in to observe the glories and the shames that signify the American hustle. In Savages (streaming now on Peacock), he turns his gaze toward the THC-laced world of high-end weed slinging, staging an action-packed battle between two rival marijuana empires on either side of the U.S.-Mexico drug trade.

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Savages: Killer drug deeds with a killer cast

A later-career entry in Stone’s enormous movie oeuvre, Savages (2012) had no trouble drafting a stacked cast of acting talent to breathe life (and maybe a little ganja smoke) into its wild story of mutually-assured cartel destruction. Based on the same-named 2010 crime novel by author Don Winslow (who shares screenwriting credit with Stone and Avatar: The Way of Water scribe Shane Salerno), the movie sets a trio of superstars at the center of its American tale, which contrasts — sometimes jarringly — with the complex schemes of Mexican weed boss Elena Sánchez (Salma Hayek) and her questionably loyal henchmen (a deliciously vile enforcer-goon named Lado, played to perfection by Benicio del Toro; and an ill-fated cartel deputy played by Demián Bichir).

The trifecta of acting talent on the American side unites Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson with Blake Lively, each actor occupying a vital point on an unconventional business-and-pleasure triangle that contains their functionally-dysfunctional relationship. Lively narrates the movie as “O” (short for “Ophelia”), a wispily romantic Cali girl who shares herself equally with Berkeley-bred botanist Ben (Taylor-Johnson) and ex-Navy SEAL Chon (Kitsch), with nary a hint of lovers’ jealousy or objection among them. “The one thing they have in common is me,” O helpfully explains. “I am the home that neither of them ever had.”

Elena (Salma Hayek) is emotional in front of O (Blake Lively) in Savages (2012).

There’s a definite fire-and-ice friendship dynamic between Chon’s hot-headed, shoot-first soldier’s persona and Ben’s charitable, large-hearted approach to humanity. But between them, they’ve created and immensely profited from a super-strain of weed (Chon nabbed the magic seeds while on tour in Afghanistan, while Ben provided the requisite grower’s green thumb.) Successful and sought after, they’re happy together — at least while it lasts. Until Hayek’s over-the-border crime boss decides to rudely shoulder in on their territory, their days are mostly spent in a hazy bliss of sex, sunshine, and sativa, shacked up in a cliffside mogul’s mansion hanging above the California coast.

Things go bad when Elena issues Ben and Chon an ominous ultimatum, extending a hostile-takeover type of “deal” that’s meant to assure the Mexican cartel a slice of the profits from the trio’s super-weed. Negotiations escalate when Elena’s baddies kidnap O to prove that she means business, touching off an incredible game of violent cat-and-mouse that eventually comes to a head when Chon and Ben track down Elena’s daughter (played by Sandra Echeverría) and kidnap her as a tit-for-tat bargaining chip to assure O’s safe return.

A police press conference appears in Savages (2012).

Caught in the two sides’ crossfire is DEA Agent Dennis Cain (John Travolta), a pragmatically persuadable fella who’s happy to double-cross contacts on either end of the drug-dealing spectrum, so long as the price is right (or if there’s a gun aimed at his head). Travolta’s presence in the movie provides the necessary tug at all the plot threads Stone and Winslow have carefully laid. Each new piece of intel his shady fed agent shares leads to huge revelations about loyalty and disloyalty inside the cartel — with each of them, naturally, punctuated by spectacular bursts of action that only add to the movie’s mounting mangled-body count.

Savages’ plot is both simple and complex, tracking the strategic machinations of smart and resourceful criminals who value success almost as much as they value — when things get extra-nasty — simply staying alive. Despite their differing war-and-peace demeanors, Ben and Chon will absolutely kill with equal conviction to get O back to safety (and, crucially, back to main-character status in their happy lovers’ triangle) — and Savages places tons of thematic weight on exhibiting, in graphic detail, just how far they’ll go to regain that lost equilibrium.

Fans of Stone’s movies are still waging online war over how to interpret Savages’ sleight-of-hand ending, which might leave all three Americans dead or else living happily ever after (and we won’t spoil the answer here.) Either way, the movie suggests that the drug trade has a funny way of leaving even its biggest winners feeling hollow inside. But just the same as Breaking Bad’s Walter White, the game’s key movers feel enormously alive while they’re blazing their separate paths to catastrophe… and in Stone’s hands, viewers feel like they’re strapped along for the voyeuristically vicious ride, right in the shotgun seat.

Savages is streaming on Peacock now.