I will say upfront that I have not read the book that this movie is based on. In fact, I only learned it was based on a book after I watched it. So my review is just about the movie. The movie was entertaining, and I enjoyed watching it, until the ending (I will get to that later, and I will give a SPOILER ALERT before I give anything away). I just am a little bit mystified about what this movie was trying to be. I should also mention that I am a philosophy student, and I tend to interpret everything from that standpoint. I am always looking for the philosophy in everything. If you are uninterested in that kind of thing, I would recommend skipping my review. If you are interested in that kind of thing, well then, buckle up, because you are in for the ride of your life! (did I oversell it?)
Other people have already described the plot, so I am just going to jump right into the thematic material. This movie seems to me to have a lot of material for a good movie, I am just not sure it makes that material into anything. There is the title for example. "Savages". The movie revolves around a conflict between relatively peace loving pot growers from California, and a violent Mexican drug cartel, and at various points in the movie each side refers to the other as "savages". Clearly the filmmakers are attempting to make a point here, I am just not sure what it is. That we are all savages at heart? That terms like "civilized", "cultured", and "savage" are relative? These are interesting ideas, and the exploration of those questions would make for a good movie, but as far as I can tell, this movie does not even attempt to explore those questions in any meaningful way. Which does not make it a bad movie, it just leaves me a bit perplexed.
The tale is pretty straight forward. The pot growers are relatively decent human beings, and the Mexican cartel comes in and threatens to torture and kill someone they love, and so they retaliate. In other words, a plot you have seen many times before, which does not make it bad, I tend to enjoy good formulaic plots, but I feel like the title of the movie, and the throw away comments about "savages", sets up a kind of expectation that never really gets fulfilled. There is the expectation that something is going to be said on the theme of "savagery", and I just do not think that the film delivers. It would be like an announcement in the paper "Lecture on Savages" by Oliver Stone, Wednesday 7pm-8pm. Then you get there and he does not show up.
The closest the film gets to saying anything explicit about "savagery" is at the end of the movie, during the last voiceover, where O. literally reads the dictionary definition of "savage". Um, really? That is where the movie went for its profound insight into savagery? Webster's? Like I said, none of this makes this a bad movie. It is not necessary for movies to provide deep insights into concepts like "savagery" to be good, but if you are hoping for some insight into the concept of "savagery" that you could not get from breaking out the dictionary, I think you will be disappointed with this movie.
I think the best scene in the movie is the dinner with Elena (Selma Hayek) and O. (Blake Lively). That seems to me to be one scene where people claim to see some moral complexity in the film, because we get a little peek into the motivations behind Elena's assumption of the throne, and something rare happens: we feel sorry for the head of a drug cartel, even when she seems to be entirely in control, and at the height of her power. That is not entirely true since she is being driven out of Mexico by rival cartels, but we do get a peek into the violence and death that come along with her particular job. It is not an enviable life, and it is a mystery to me why any human being on earth would ever have ambition to become the head of a drug cartel. This, I think, is one of the achievements of the film. I cannot think of any other movie that portrays the head of a drug cartel in that way. Usually those kinds of villains are just caricatures. On the one hand, they represent our own desires for wealth, power, women, or to be free from moral constraints, etc., and on the other, they are empty place holders for all of our hate and fear, so that at the end of the movie, when they get their comeuppance, we all leave the theater feeling like we have experienced some kind of catharsis. All the terror we feel in our everyday lives has been turned back on the people who are responsible for that terror. And it feels good, for a little while anyways. That is the role that heads of drug cartels usually play in movies. This movie deserves credit for "complexifying" the picture a bit (that's right, I just made up a word, I warned you things might get crazy).
One of the achievements of this movie is that it actually makes the audience sympathetic with the vicious head of a drug cartel who is holding an innocent woman captive. The problem is, again, I am not really sure what the point is. What is the film trying to say? That the heads of drug cartels are really sad, lonely, and misunderstood? I also do not think that this is really "moral complexity". It is "character complexity". The makers of the film created an interesting character, and they deserve credit, but there is no moral complexity there. Her actions are heinous. We do not leave the cinema with any deep questions about what is right or wrong.
The same can be said in relation to the pot growers. Their dilemma does not really raise any deep moral questions. They are just in a bad situation, but that is what movies do. They put people in bad situations. My review is sort of turning into a response to some other reviews I read, which is not what I intended. I just do not agree with the claim that this movie explores "moral complexity" any more deeply than any other movie that puts characters in situations where they have to make difficult decisions. Movies set these kinds of dilemmas up all the time, not because they are exploring moral themes, but because it creates tension. Is the good character going to let the person they love die, or are they going to commit a morally reprehensible act and lose their soul? So I do not think this movie is really saying anything very interesting about morality either.
The last theme I will mention is the theme of our modern pot culture. It seems to me that Oliver Stone is taking some shots at that California culture (and I live in California by the way), particularly in the dinner scene, where O. is explaining her decision to leave community college to the person who is holding her captive and threatening to cut off her head if her "boyfriends" do not do as she says. That was, as I said before, a good scene. But I have to ask again, what is the point? What is Oliver Stone saying about our culture? It is possible that he is saying that it has a dark side that people do not pay attention to. That is an interesting idea! And it is the one idea that I think the film really does develop to some degree. There is, on the one hand, the sunny California beaches, and the friendly neighborhood pot stores, and then, there are the dark cells where people have their heads cut off by chain saws. People certainly have a tendency to ignore the dark side of things. Actually, what I should say is, people fail to see that the light and dark sides are often two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other (in some cases, at least). In the case that this movie explores, you cannot have the the pot filled California lifestyle without the dark cells and decapitated bodies. Of course, one could certainly argue that the two sides only go together because marijuana is still illegal, and who knows, perhaps Oliver Stone meant the movie to be a giant "legalize marijuana" commercial.
It is possible that I am searching too hard for this movie's "message" since it is, after all, an Oliver Stone picture, and we expect a message when Oliver Stone is involved. I read conflicting reviews of this movie. Some reviewers claimed that it was refreshing to see an Oliver Stone picture without a message, that was just good, not-so-wholesome entertainment. Other reviewers claimed that this movie represents Oliver Stone's triumphant return to the soap box. I am not sure it is a good thing that people are having such conflicting responses. I tend to think the movie is probably trying to say something, I just am not really sure what that is.
From what I have said so far, it probably sounds like I really hated the movie, but I actually found it to be compulsively watchable. It works as an "action" movie, with interesting characters, and an interesting plot. I am just not sure that people should be trying to make more out of it than that. There were times when I had some complaints with the writing. A number of lines that seemed like they were meant to be profound fell flat for me. Especially in the voice-overs that open and close the movie. The acting was pretty good for the most part. No surprise that I thought Benicio del Toro, Selma Hayek, and John Travolta were the highlights in that regard. I could watch Benicio del Toro play a sociopath for hours on end.
Finally, I have to say something about the ending, so here is my SPOILER ALERT. I am just not sure what to make of the ending. Unlike most movies this movie had two endings, and to be honest, I found them both unsatisfying. The first ending is unsatisfying because all the good guys die, the second is unsatisfying because it is basically a farce and anti-climactic. I have to say, I felt a brief moment of relief when the movie decided to rewind and replay the ending, because I did find the first ending unsatisfying, but it was sort of a slap in the face to be presented with another, almost equally unsatisfying ending, to replace the first. Not only did I find both endings to the movie unsatisfying, but I found the fact that there were two endings in the first place to be unsatisfying, and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why Stone decided to do that. It does not seem to me to serve any purpose. Neither ending seems to me to be making a point, or serve any artistic purpose. There is a "feel bad" ending where all the good guys die, and a "feel good" ending where everyone lives, and all the good guys move to a tropical island and live happily ever after (that might be an exaggeration). I am someone who firmly believes that art does not exist to fulfill our "human all too human desires". The short stories of Anton Chekhov, for example, are beautiful stories, but they almost always leave the reader unsatisfied. They are also great works of art, and the dissatisfaction felt by the reader is part of the artistic message. So I am fine, in principle, with unsatisfying endings, if they serve some artistic purpose. I just cannot figure out why Stone decided to have not one, but two, unsatisfying endings?
It seems to me that you have two choices in regard to ending a movie: you can provide the satisfying ending, or you can decide to send a message with the ending. Since it does not seem to me that this movie was sending any very clear message with the ending, why not accept your status as an "action" flick, and just give the audience the satisfying ending they are craving, where the good guys triumph in a climactic gun battle, Lado (Benicio del Toro), who is the real villain of the film, gets what is coming to him, and everyone lives happily ever after. If you decide not to go either route, if you decide to provide an unsatisfying ending without sending any message, at least have the decency to give us ONE ending instead of TWO.
If it were not for the ending, I would not hesitate to recommend this film, as a compellingly watchable film. It does not, in my opinion, deal with deep themes (like Natural Born Killers or Platoon (Special Edition)), but it is a good, entertaining, watchable movie. With the ending I am not sure what to recommend. Why can't you people just make up your own minds? Why does everything always have to be my fault?