by Steve Habrat
Controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone has plenty of hits to his name. He penned Scarface and directed classics like Platoon, Wall Street, The Doors, JFK, and Natural Born Killers, to name a few. After a string of misfires and a hurried W., Stone returns to splatter territory with Savages, a wannabe Natural Born Killers that was adapted from Don Winslow’s novel of the same name. Savages is ripe with potential but Stone seems to be holding back his punches that he throws at us, failing to really engage us intellectually for a good majority of the runtime. It also doesn’t help that his three young leads, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, and Blake Lively, are all astoundingly comatose compared to heavy hitters like the scorching Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek. Savages lifts the camerawork of Natural Born Killers and drags along almost as many buckets of gore, but the story rambles on for entirely too long and gets a kick out of trying to overcomplicate itself, which is laughable because the film isn’t that complicated to begin with. I hoped that Savages would be a biting drug thriller that would join the ranks of Stone’s classics but alas, it falls more along the lines of World Trade Center.
Savages is told from the point of view of O (Played by Blake Lively), who warns us at the beginning that just because she is narrating this story doesn’t mean she is alive at the end of it. O is in a three-way relationship with two top California pot growers, who churn out some of the strongest herb you can get your hands on. The brain behind the operation is the dreadlocked Ben (Played by Aaron Johnson) and the muscle of the business is former U.S. Navy SEAL Chon (Played by Taylor Kitsch). The group lives a cushy life in a beachfront home where they indulge in their product and engage in lots of steamy sex. Out of the blue one day, Chon discovers an email from the Mexican Baja Cartel that contains a gruesome video of several smalltime drug dealers being butchered due to refusing to do business with the BC. Ben and Chon meet with a handful of high-ranking members of the BC but they refuse the offer that is made to them. Word gets back the terrifying head of the BC, Elena (Played by Salma Hayek), and as revenge, she sends her sadistic enforcer Lado (Played by Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap their girlfriend. With O in Elena’s clutches, she bullies Ben and Chon into doing business with her but she soon realizes that these two California boys have a lot more fight in them than she anticipated.
There is certainly plenty of hyperactive energy in this Technicolor massacre with plenty of excessive violence to make those with a weak tummy fight back their lunch, but you can’t help but feel that Stone has watered down his trickling gore. It could be called maturity on Stone’s part but Savages lacks a commentary behind all this carnage. Plus, it is difficult to say that this man has matured when he starts his movie off with heads being lobbed off with a roaring chain saw and an animalistic sex scene, all sound, flesh, and fury that ultimately signifies nothing. With Natural Born Killers, each speckle of blood meant something and we knew it. Here, the most intelligent touch from Stone is the way he slips in old Universal Studios monsters posters (Frankenstein, The Mummy, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man, to name a few) throughout the movie, placing them carefully behind Chon and Ben. Even so, what does this mean? Perhaps Stone is making a comment on the progression of the movie monster. They used to be undead ghouls who snuck around gothic castles but now they are young entrepreneurs in floral shirts. To make it even clearer to us, when Ben and Chon are forced to get savage, they cover their faces in Dia de los Muertos masks to become visually monstrous. Our antagonists do the same, but they do it right off the bat in the opening sequence. Can you believe this is coming from the man responsible for that string of gems I listed earlier?
Stone populates Savages with a trio of young faces who no doubt bring the sex appeal but none of the grit that Stone is aiming for. Blake Lively provides the somnolent narration, sounding like she is stoned for half the movie. She further acts as a wrecking ball when she is required to do more than fake an explosive orgasm. The massive talented Taylor Kitsch, who really delivered a strong performance in Battleship, only brushes with that trembling rage every now and then which was a flat out bummer. Aaron Johnson, of Kick-Ass fame, plays a blurry-eyed hippie blessed with business smarts as well as a knack for botany. He loathes the very though of violence and empties his stomach when he is asked to shoot a taunting baddie promising to murder his entire family (What family?). We learn about the drastically different personalities of these young guns through O’s description of the way they make love. This explanation gives way to what could be the most outrageous line of dialogue I have heard from a motion picture in 2012. O tells us that she has “orgasms” while Chon has “wargasams”. I’ll wait while you finish laughing…
Luckily, the kids don’t hog the spotlight and Stone allows Hayek and Del Toro to have some fun at center stage. Hayek is a tour de force as the matriarch of the BC, putting on a quiet cool before she unleashes a stream of wrath that is part English, part Spanish, and all Hell. She is reeling from the death of her husband and nurses a broken heart for several murdered children she has had the misfortune of burying. Her remaining children want nothing to do with her and in her loneliness, she turns to O for some sort of comfort. Del Toro, meanwhile, single handedly steals the show away from everyone with his sociopathic enforcer Lado, who proudly wears a stunning mullet. You won’t be able to take your eyes of this guy and when he struts into the action, your stomach will drop one hundred feet. John Travolta also shows up in a minor role that doesn’t make him look like a complete fool for once. He has a blast as the slimy DEA agent Dennis, who is playing on all sides of this bloody game. When Stone keeps the focus on these professionals, Savages actually manages to be a great movie, but that is only glimpsed briefly.
Savages does have a precious few moments that will have you on the edge of your seat, but all that tension is squandered when Stone arrives at the fake-out conclusion that is absolutely unnecessary. It was almost like Stone stepped away from the project and allowed an imitator to swoop in and finish the job. Making matters worse, Lively is such an inconsistent actress that she makes moments of the film difficult to watch. A scene where she begs to speak with Elena had my buddies and I rolling our eyes in disgust over how unconvincing her pleas sound. The film also drags on for slightly over two hours, allowing this trio of star crossed lovers to chatter on and on about absolutely nothing. Lets get to that stuff that matters! Overall, I wish Savages had more on its mind, a huge kick to the gonads because Stone is sharper than this. We should be grateful that Hayek, Del Toro, and Travolta brought their A-game. They are three snarling Pit Bulls while these other kids are yapping Chihuahuas.
Natural Born Killers (1994)
by Steve Habrat
Leave it to Oliver Stone to tackle an issue like the American public’s fascination with serial killers, blood, sex, guts, and all out mayhem. Natural Born Killers is without question one of the most controversial films ever made, a psychedelic road trip into Hell that boasts hallucinatory images, shotgun wielding satire, and a blood drenched riot as a finale that leaves the sane viewer with their mouth on the floor. Natural Born Killers is notorious for inspiring a long list of copycat murders in the wake of its 1994 release including the shooting of William Savage and Patsy Byers, the Heath High School shooting, the Columbine High School massacre, and the Richardson Family Murders. Natural Born Killers deals with the morbid intrigue we have with cold-blooded killers and how the media glamorizes and glorifies their actions. The film touches on all the major figures in death including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Whitman, and David Koresh, to name a few. Through all the controversy, director Stone has some thought provoking things to say and we can’t help but feel ashamed in ourselves for how we hang on the violence projected into our homes via the nightly news. We, as a society, were guilty this past summer when we hung on every second of the Casey Anthony trial and now, we are guilty of it again with the recent Chardon, Ohio school shooting, where news cameras were onsite to catch every drop of blood and every tear from those affected. We still haven’t learned from the message Natural Born Killers tried to deliver to us.
Natural Born Killers follows the horrific killing spree of Mickey (Played by Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Played by Juliette Lewis) Knox, two bloodthirsty individuals who have been twisted and mutated into heroes by the media for the carnage they leave in their wake. The film hops around and shows us glimpses into their troubled pasts, the pursuit of a Detective Jack Scagnetti (Played by Tom Sizemore) who has a few secrets of his own, Mickey’s Manson-esque interview with self-centered Australian tabloid journalist Wayne Gale (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), and their stay at a prison run by Warden Dwight McClusky (Played by Tommy Lee Jones). After a year stay at the prison, Mickey and Mallory are to be moved to a mental institution after being deemed insane, but the Warden, Gayle, and Detective Scagnetti all have plans of their own for the deadly duo.
You can’t evaluate Natural Born Killers without discussing the hyperactive style and array of colors Stone bathes the film in. He shoots with multiple types of film including Super 8, 16mm, black and white, animation, and video, the film flipping from one style to another with frantic randomness. Stone also adds heaping amounts of stock footage including footage of the 1993 siege on the Branch Dravidians, the Nazis, and the Charles Whitman shootings. In addition, Stone also shows us Mallory’s disturbing upbringing at the hands of her abusive father and cowardly mother. Stone presents this to the viewer as a 1950’s sitcom, adding laugh tracks and upbeat music, suggesting that we sensationalize the past of criminals and use their pasts as entertainment. Stone further suggests that we sensationalize violence every single day and use it as a form of entertainment. Even though the film deals with gruesome topics and we should be appalled by it, we keep watching and easily digesting it because he molds it into shameless entertainment. Even if you hate the film and find yourself mortified by it, you can’t say that you weren’t entertained while watching it.
The characters of Mickey and Mallory are contorted into a modern Bonnie and Clyde with a sprinkling of Charles Whitman and Charles Manson. They relish in their hellish fame and joyfully tell their fans “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” as they are led into court. Stone makes them charismatic despite their urges to kill and maim. They use theatrics in the massacres, usually leaving one person alive to tell the tale of Mickey and Mallory. Mickey is a brewing storm of fury that is bottled up and when provoked, slowly uncorks and spews forth with a wrath that will make your head spin. Mallory isn’t as discreet (I use that term loosely here) as Mickey, she unhinges at the smallest little things. But in a sick way, we root for Mickey and Mallory, who actually just want to be left to themselves by the end. Their love for each other trumps their murderous impulses. Stone purposely wants us to root for them, forcing us to listen in on their warped viewpoints Mickey explains to Gale. He also paints them as tragic victims by their troubled pasts, another action by the exploitative media. But Stone uses Gayle to show us how infectious the mental sickness is, the virus spread with a camera and microphone. Mickey sparks a gruesome riot and awakens a killer in Gayle, who begins to enjoy the murder and mayhem. Stone seems to be foretelling the idea of individuals who find inspiration in these monsters.
Natural Born Killers doesn’t pour much hope in the ones who are sworn to protect us. They use murders and psychos for their own personal fame and gain. Wayne Gayle uses them for reputation, Scagnetti uses them for vengeance, and McClusky uses them for his career. In the end, we have to wonder if any of the individuals out there really care about our safety or well-being. These twisted people realize that they can capitalize on death. By the finale, Mickey and Mallory are the rebellion to these individuals–bring down a flurry of bullets with an army of inmates tearing through the prison. Natural Born Killers says that those who claim to protect and serve are really no better than the ones they are trying to capture and put behind bars, something that the real life individuals who are guilty of this crime should be ashamed of.
Natural Born Killers is a film that should be approached with caution, a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. As I have pointed out, many miss the intellectual message of the film and see it as a trippy view into how murder can make you famous. How murder will make the world remember your name, a message that is formed by a weak, delusional mind. For the viewer who wants a thought provoking experience, I encourage you to see Natural Born Killers, a film that holds a slot in my top twenty films of all time. I have always found myself fascinated by how the evening news projects violence into our homes on daily basis. Think of how no one stopped disgraced politician Budd Dwyer as he pulled out a gun and blew his head off on live television, on a snow day when young children were able to see it. If you have seen the footage, you know that the camera kept rolling and the cameraman even zooms in on the bloody mess, making sure we see every minute detail and every smudge of gore. Then it was rerun for everyone to see, presented as a spectacle of a desperate man with no other option. Think 0f how the news covered the events of Waco, how we hang on the interviews with the deranged and manipulative Charles Manson, or our round the clock coverage of any given school shooting. We are the ones who are guilty of making these monsters heroes. We are the ones who sensationalize death and tragedy, refusing to try to intervene or turn away from it. We haven’t learned from our mistakes, that I say with firm confidence. Natural Born Killers is as relevant now as ever, morphing the film to a polarizing classic.
Natural Born Killers is now available of Blu-ray and DVD.