Ben and Chon are in the marijuana biz. They run a mom-and-pot outfit, if you will (except that there’s no mom). Germinated with bootleg seeds from Afghanistan and cultivated through high-tech botany, the cannabis these guys grow is some the most potent in the world. And even though they’re just a small boutique dealer compared with the big-box pot growers south of the border, they still do enough business—legally and otherwise—to sustain a comfortable existence.
But now their modest success has attracted the attention of a drug cartel. The cartel wants to do business with Ben and Chon. And if they resist, well, let’s just say the bigger organization might just initiate a hostile takeover.
How hostile? Chon receives a video from the cartel filled with images of decapitated heads—the last group, it’s insinuated, that refused to partner up. Chon, an ex-military man, wants to push back, to show these guys that he and Ben aren’t afraid. Ben, however, is very much afraid. He’s ready to get out of the business and turn their operation over.
But the cartel, led by mysterious drug heiress Elena, isn’t interested in that option either.
Instead, Elena kidnaps O, Ben and Chon’s (shared) girlfriend. The cartel arranges a video conference, where Ben and Chon see O tied to a chair, bruised and bleeding, surrounded by blade-wielding guards. The message is clear: Join the cartel or O will die, and die badly.
Successful businesses always require some sacrifices, of course. But some require more than others.
The film’s three protagonists—Ben, Chon and O—care deeply about one another. Both Ben and Chon show a willingness to die for what they both call their “family.” (How their relationship to said “family” manifests itself is problematic, but we’ll get to that shortly.)
They’re not the only ones with strong attachments. Elena also has family, a daughter whom she would do anything to protect. Dennis, a crooked federal agent, cares for his dying wife and is trying to raise two young daughters.
Ben uses his drug money to start and fund various charities around the world. “He sees himself as a healer,” O says, adding that Ben wants to change the world for the better. And when Ben dreams of getting out of the business, he imagines moving into a less problematic, more altruistic line of work.
O says of Laguna Beach, Calif., “God parked Himself [there] on the seventh day, but they towed Him on the eighth.” Elena’s cartel is based in Mexico, where we see Catholic iconography crop up around the periphery. One henchman wears a crucifix that shines in the sun before he shoots a victim. Ben and Chon give the cartel a shipment of marijuana in the midst of statuary that may have been part of a religious “Day of the Dead” celebration. (A skeleton, for instance, is dressed as a bride.)
Ben is Buddhist, and statues of Buddha show up occasionally. Chon tells Ben that his religion doesn’t have a place in the sordid business they’re involved in (“What does a fat Jap know?” he says, getting the Buddha’s ancestry wrong). Chon later researches Buddhism and quotes the Dalai Lama to get Ben to do what he believes is necessary.
Elena tells her daughter that she’s coming to visit, saying, “If the mountain doesn’t come to Mohammed, Mohammed will come to California.” Elena also plays with a deck of Tarot cards.
“There is something wrong with your love story, baby,” Elena tells O. And she ain’t kidding. Ben, Chon and O form a strange threesome, with each man knowingly sleeping with O whenever the mood strikes. And it strikes often.
We first meet O and Chon having wild sex on a couch. We see Chon’s bare backside as the two make explicit movements and sounds. We’re told Chon is an angry lover, working out past battlefield experiences in “wargasms.”
Ben returns from a do-gooding trip to Africa and takes a bath. (We see most of his body, but not his genitals.) O joins him, clothed in a flimsy top and panties. The two make out in the bathtub, end up in bed and have sex. We (again) see his bare backside, sexual body motions and suggestive sound effects. Then, after the three of them smoke something potent, they all make out together: It’s not as explicit as the first two sex scenes, but it’s clear the guys are having sex with her simultaneously.
Director Oliver Stone tells The Huffington Post that he would’ve loved to have made that scene more explicit. “Oh, yeah, there was no way I could have done that in the present film environment.” Stone says. “There’s a certain Puritanism in our society that continues to haunt us.”
Magda, Elena’s daughter, has sex with her boyfriend. O wears flimsy, revealing outfits. A henchman is shown with a bare-breasted female companion. Bikini-clad women show up frequently. We catch a glimpse of a painting featuring a woman’s genitals. A man looks at a pornographic magazine. Someone grabs and fondles a guy’s crotch.
Cartel employees explicitly ponder what O does with Chon and Ben. Elena theorizes that Ben and Chon love each other more than O, which is why they agree to share her. Crude references are made to various body parts.
Savages seethes with the carnage that reflects the violent nature of the ongoing drug wars in Mexico. The bloodshed and the violations that the camera focuses upon offer a brutal, fictionalized representation of that reality. As such, they’re meant to feel real and painful and terrible.
When O is in the custody of the cartel, a terrifying enforcer named Lado makes threatening, lewd come-ons. He cuts a bloody steak and feeds it to her, piece by piece. When she requests a hit of marijuana, he takes a toke, then forces her mouth to his and blows the smoke into her. All this culminates in rape, which takes place when O is so drugged up that she doesn’t immediately remember … until Lado shows her the video of the deed taken with his phone. (We glimpse images of him pressing himself upon her sexually against a fence; both are mostly clothed.)
Another video shows a concrete floor covered in blood and littered with decapitated heads. On the walls, we see mutilated, headless bodies skewered on stakes or hung upside down. A man in a mask picks up a head and appears ready to hurl it at the camera.
Lado goes to a lawyer’s house and shoots the man in both kneecaps, leaving him screaming in pain as Lado talks on the phone. Before hanging up, he finishes the poor soul off. He then forces one of his henchmen to shoot the dead man’s wife—blood spattering over their faces. It’s suggested Lado and his team cut up the bodies and take them away.
Lado tortures a suspected snitch in Elena’s operation. The victim is hung up by chains and whipped across his body and face. He’s beaten so horribly that one of his eyeballs has popped out and hangs from its socket. The man does not confess until Lado threatens to do horrible things to his wife and kids. He then confesses (to a crime he did not commit). Lado tells him that protecting his family is honorable: “I would give you a better death, but I would set a bad example,” he says. He then puts a tire around the man’s neck, soaks the man in gasoline and tells Ben to drop a flare into it (which he does), immolating the shrieking man.
Several people die from close-range gunshots (we often see blood and brain matter splatter), or from knives to the jugular (one man bleeds out in a car). Someone’s hand gets stabbed and pinned to the back of a car seat. A massive gunfight leaves everyone involved dead or nearly so, blood gurgling and seeping from gory wounds. Three people apparently kill themselves by injecting some sort of drug. Cartel members tell Chon to put a gun in his mouth and put his hand on the trigger—telling him they’ll cut off O’s fingers if he doesn’t. Chon obeys.
We see bleeding faces and hear a chain saw start up as the prelude to a massacre. Lado “fires” an employee by shooting him in the face. People are kidnapped and kept in wretched conditions. Drug users and runners are threatened with death. Cars explode.
About 100 f-words and 30 s-words. We hear “a‑‑,” “b‑‑tard” and “n-gger.” God’s name is misused a few times, twice with “d‑‑n.” Rough slang references genitalia and breasts.
“Drugs are supposed to be bad,” O says as she lights up a marijuana pipe. “But in a bad, bad world, they’re good.” Or so O and her cohorts seem to think, as there’s an awful lot of drug use in these bad, bad environs. Pot is everywhere: being grown, being cut, being packaged, being delivered, being smoked (be it in a joint, a pipe or a bong). Several people use cocaine, with residue visible on various countertops. Characters smoke cigarettes, drink wine and consume all manner of hard liquor.
Interestingly, when O tells Elena that she’s having trouble concentrating in captivity and begs he for a little something to “take the edge off,” Elena asks how long O’s been smoking pot. Since eighth grade, O tells her. Elena smiles. “And you’re wondering why you’re having concentration problems?” she says.
People throw up after their first killings. Lado urinates outside a house. O spits in Lado’s face; he wipes it off and sucks it into his mouth.
Savages is based on a book by Don Wilson, a journalist and author who’s spent much of his career cataloging the horrors of Mexican drug cartels. He believes, and director Oliver Stone agrees, that not only has the so-called War on Drugs been lost, but that it breeds the sort of violence we see in Savages.
“If pot weren’t illegal, there wouldn’t be so much risk,” Stone told The Huffington Post. “If there weren’t so much risk, there wouldn’t be so much money and violence; if there weren’t so much money and violence, there wouldn’t be a movie.”
Whether Stone is right or wrong or in between, frankly, is outside the scope of this review. We must concern ourselves with not what could or should be here, but with what is.
And as such, Savages is an exceptionally problematic story—a would-be morality tale, except for the fact that there’s no moral in sight. I’ve detailed the extreme sex, violence and drug use here, and I should note that Stone himself believes his latest film barely squeaked through with an R rating. And while his narrative is compelling enough to have earned plaudits from some reviewers, there’s little, if any, redemptive value here from a Plugged In point of view.
But at least the title tells the truth. There’s no shortage of savages here: the cartel we’re supposed to loathe, the characters we’re intended to like, the film that depicts them.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.