Movie Review: Savages

Saturday, July 14, 2012 5 comments
Title: Savages
Made by: Oliver Stone, based on the book by Don Winslow
Menage Content: MFM
Category/Genre: Crime Thriller
Does this Review Contain Spoilers?: No, or very mild. It does contain racist slurs (quoted).

This is Violetta Vane reporting in with our first ever movie review. Hopefully we'll have some more in the coming months! Savages is a major Hollywood big-screen depiction of a menage relationship, and as such I had to go see it and report on it.

Savages is a lot like Natural Born Killers except it has less rape, less killing, more torture and more racism. I wouldn't recommend it for anyone unless you already like ultraviolent crime thrillers (which I kind of do). And if you are a Buddhist (which I am) this movie is like noticing your shoe is wet and looking down and seeing a dog is peeing on you and then it bites you and runs away. All in all, this was not a pleasant viewing experience for me.

The stupid plot is that there are these two dope growers, Ben and Chon. The trailer tells you everything you need to know about every character in the movie so I'll just quote a few lines. "Ben went to Berkeley and double-majored in business and botany. He takes 99% of the violence out of the business. The other 1%? Well, that's where Chon comes in." So Ben is the hippie dude scientist humanitarian dope grower whose hobby is going to Africa and Asia and digging wells for poor brown and black kids. I'm not being snarky: this is exactly what he does. They actually show clips of him hugging little hungry ragged brown kids. And he's a Buddhist. Chon, on the other hand, is the BAD-ist. I'm not making that up either. Their girlfriend Ophelia, who narrates the whole movie in voiceover, says "he is a BAD-ist". Get it? Get it? Just kill me now. Anyway, he used to be in Iraq and Afghanistan where he learned how to kill brown people (Iraqis and Afghanis, referred to at one point as sand n***as) so he is also very good at killing brown people who are Mexicans (AKA beaners). Does anyone really use the word beaner anymore? Jesus. I mean Buddha!

I was always confusing Ben and Chon because they're white dudes who look kind of the same and have one syllable names that sound the same. But Ben has longer hair, a goatee, and when forced (by cruel cruel Mexicans) to kill, he has a sad look in his eyes like he's just been hit on the head with a newspaper. Chon scowls more and has lots of scars. I forget which one is Taylor Kitsch.

Ophelia, their girlfriend, is played by Blake Lively. I don't know anything about the actress, but she did a good job in an utterly thankless role. Her character's narrative role consists mainly of providing a voiceover, or getting humiliated or raped. There is not a single thing she does that would change the outcome of the movie in any way. She's entirely symbolic and passive.

Salma Hayek is the Mexican cartel queen. She smokes up the screen like whoah. I would have enjoyed this movie soooo much more if she was the leading antiheroine with a Scarface-type story. Benicio del Toro plays her henchman, who is as cartoonishly evil as Salma Hayek but less physically appealing—he's a hot guy, but the way he acts the role is purposefully repulsive. John Travolta as a corrupt FBI agent is the last main character, and he does a pretty decent job too.

Getting to the reason I saw this movie in the first place: the menage elements were good at first. I like how Ophelia voiceovers, "you might think I'm a slut, but whatever, I don't care." The relationship was visually appealing and sensual. There was a refreshing absence of angst. The two guys obviously don't care if people assume they're doing each other, either. This is MFM and no swords were crossed onscreen (no Y Tu Mamá También moment) but there wasn't any sense that the guys had a no-touch rule, either.

Menage is not a large element of the movie, ultimately. All the bad stuff that happens isn't because of the menage in the beginning. I don't get the sense that the trio are being punished for having a nonstandard relationship. Or maybe I was supposed to get that message, but the messages are delivered in such a stupid and fucked-up way that it sailed right past me.

A lot of stuff happens in Savages, and as usual in Stone movies, the suspense is well done. But nobody changes. There's no relationship development, no stakes anywhere. The only person who has a character arc is Ben, and his stupid arc is that he starts off a peace-loving Buddhist and because his girlfriend is kidnapped turns into a killer just like Chon. The part that really pissed me off was in the beginning of the movie, where Ben is counseling peaceful negotiation with the Mexican cartel and says something like "that's what Buddha would do." And Chon says, "who cares what some fat Jap thinks." And then Ben corrects him by saying, "some fat Indian."

Jap is a straight-up racist slur, but most people don't give a fuck and drop it casually anyway. When I was a kid, I used to get called it all the time, so I'm rather sensitive about it, but I'm reconciled to the fact that in pretty much any corner of media I'll get slapped with it completely at random. Plus, I can't complain about going to see a movie I fully expected to be racist against Mexicans and then being directly insulted myself. What pisses me off most here is the stupidity. The Buddha wasn't fat. Not that being fat is an insult, it's simply factually inaccurate. Gautama Buddha used to be a wandering ascetic in India and starved himself to almost nothing before he mellowed out and found the Middle Way. The traditional portrayal of Gautama Buddha is consistent from one corner of Asia to the other and is not fat. The fat laughing Buddha statues are more of an East Asian thing, and are not Gautama Buddha, they are a representation of a deity called Hotei in Japan. See here for details. This is a mistake I expect non-Buddhists to make. However, it is NOT a mistake a Buddhist would make. Even the typical white person who converted three months ago because they took a BeliefNet quiz and decided Buddhism sounded cool except they don't call themselves a convert because they claim Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion? EVEN THOSE BUDDHISTS US OTHER BUDDHISTS GENTLY LAUGH AT WOULD KNOW GAUTAMA BUDDHA IS NOT FAT, and would attempt to correct the typical Hotei-confusion. But apparently the people involved in this movie didn't even bother to spend ten minutes looking up Buddhism on Beliefnet or Wikipedia or anything. I may be a Buddhist but I'm not a very good Buddhist so my response to that is RRRRAGE. Fuck all of y'all you fucking suck!!!

So that, plus all the other racism, rather ruined my investment in the romance. You can kind of pick up the rest of it from the trailer, which includes flashes of the scene where Ben and Chon kidnap Salma Hayek's daughter while wearing Calavera masks. The masking is a traditional racist trope: the white man would prefer to stay above savagery, but when forced to descend into savagery by the dark races, they will rise to the task and prove to be even more savage than the dark savages. Don't mess with whitey! The mask represents their appropriation of the power of the darker race. I was wondering if that would be subverted in any way before I went to see the movie. It wasn't.

There were a couple half-assed attempts to make the thrust of the movie more complicated—to make it seem like the word SAVAGES wasn't just synonymous with SCARY MEXICANS—but the amorality and cynicism were half-hearted, not piercing, not perceptive. Oliver Stone was too chicken to fix it in the ending, which is stupid just like the ending to Natural Born Killers.

I won't even get into how women in this movie are either totally passive or evil.

The Good: Salma Hayek, some parts of the menage in the beginning, beautiful cinematography and good action pacing. The BAD-ism (get it? Get it?): racism, misogyny, endless stream of stupidity while pretending to be clever.


  • roslynholcomb said...

    Wow, I know nothing about Buddhism except what I saw on a PBS animated documentary (way cool, BTW) and I know he was at one time an ascetic. I'm frequently amazed btw people throw racial slurs around. I think they think it gives characters realism and grittiness. I think it's just lazy.

  • Violetta Vane said...


    I totally agree. I don't mind them being used in realistic ways to further the story and characterization; I mind when they're used stupidly and pointlessly and lazily.

  • Butterfly said...

    I pretty much agree with all of your review. The movie was a big disappointment and an all-around mess. I went in expecting a dumb action flick with an awesome polyamorous relationship thrown in. I got a really bad movie with some really hot polyamorous scenes in the first 30 minutes. To be honest, I should have walked out after their last night together, after that the movie just descended into a confused mess. Like when the camera tried to be all artsy and mess with filters and jitter around and use lens flares. Or how the movie just wouldn't focus on any one character or decide on whose story it was going to tell.
    Gotta point out, though, I just read the book and the messy rambling style kinda works there. There's a lot more talk of Ben's Buddhism (or lack thereof) in the book, about his parents and such. And the ending is very different. SPOILERS
    Everyone dies. I mean everyone. The DEA agent, Lado, Elena, O, Ben, Chon ... it's crazy. Imagine the movie if they'd kept the first ending, not rewound and saved the main three. Yeah. I don't know if it was the author or Oliver Stone or the screenwriter or what, but in the book, the ending wasn't that stupid "psych! We were just kidding! Happy ending now!" crap. So that's something you can blame on the movie team, not the source material.

  • Jill Sorenson said...

    OMG I totally disagree! I loved the movie and thought it was a commentary on racism and savagery, not an endorsement. Salma Hayek's performance was amazing--this was not a stereotypical female character. The Mexican cartel members are villains, but so are the white guys. There are no heroes. These are balanced negative portrayals.

    Also, the setting & cultural details rang true to me. I know Laguna Beach and Chula Vista. Jon Travolta's character carries a soda cup from In n Out Burger--classic. Salma Hayek's ringtone is from a popular Mexican TV show. The technology, dark humor, use of skull imagery--that was all spot on authentic IMO.

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