Savages was savaged when it came out. Many people thought it was Oliver Stone reverting to his previous style of Natural Born Killers or Scarface. But, Stone is being dreamier in Savages than he has ever been. Even the psychotic nightmare backdrop to U-Turn felt like a hard-edged acid trip of a movie compared to the lush and lurid plotting that Stone attempts in Savages.
Stone is pulling a fast one on us. Stone has never been one to make a movie that has little to say, but Savages just seems like an exploitation exercise that just toys with the drug war in order to weave a fanciful tale. At least it seems that way until the final sequences of Savages, where Stone completely deviates from the book.
A quick run up. Savages is told from the perspective of a disembodied narrator, O, who may or may not be dead. She is the girlfriend of Ben and Chon, two marijuana farmers who make super-strength weed they sell to legal marijuana distributors in California and also to illegal distribution outlets. Their pot business come under the watch of a Mexican drug kingpin, Elena Sanchez, who kidnaps O in order to manipulate Ben and Chon into her business. With the reluctant help of Dennis the Corrupt FBI Agent, they kidnap Elena’s daughter, rob one of her deliveries, and set up all of her agents for the crimes.
The double kidnapping story leads to a climactic exchange, told twice. The first version is a bizarre John Woo-esque shootout where almost everybody dies. Chon injects Ben, O, and himself with a suicide drug, Elena is shot by a henchman who is also shot, and and nobody lives happily ever after. This is revealed to be a fantasy of O’s. The real ending has the exchange threatening to turn into a shootout before being thwarted by Dennis who swoops in to arrest Elena. By doing so, Dennis is making a drug bust while also pronouncing the ending of one of Mexico’s major drug rings. Ben, Chon, and O are used as witnesses before they are hidden on some faraway beach where they could be living or dead, but O never confirms.
Stone then closes the movie with a frame that says “The End,” perhaps one of the most cynical touches in this film.
The first reading of the use of The End is that Stone is merely stating up front that this whole thing is fiction; it’s a fantasy that doesn’t exist and shouldn’t be taken seriously. With this reading, Savages exists in a fairy tale world where the lurid is the ideal. It’s an easy and valid reading, especially since it is a film that is all about a drug-business fantasy. But, I think that there’s an edge to the use of The End.
In the end of Savages, Dennis sets himself up as winning the drug war in public. The good-natured pot growers are given amnesty and sent off to a faraway island to protect them. It’s not as simple as that. Dennis was in bed with Elena’s lead henchman, Lado. Lado had been making moves to get out from under Elena, and make the move to another Mexican kingpin, El Azul. When Dennis breaks up Elena’s drug ring, he sets up show for Azul’s drug ring to take over, and he can be part of it. The end of the drug ring is actually the set up of the next. The use of “The End” is used cynically because Stone has already set up the continuation of the drug ring.
Conversely, O hints that she may be dead. She spends the coda talking about how Ben, Chon and herself are on a beach living like beautiful savages and they may emerge somewhere later. She doesn’t give a location, and the way her final monologue reads, she could have just as easily been killed by the government as sent to live in an idyllic beach on some remote island. While she’s talking about one day returning to civilization, Stone’s use of The End hints that they were probably killed, as their story actually doesn’t continue on.
People have read the ending of Savages as love conquers all, but I think Stone’s use of The End is laced with a lot more acid than a simple surface reading gives. The fantasia in the idyllic island is given a completely different look than the oversaturated lurid color palette Stone uses for the rest of the film. The final sequence has a gauzy 16mm-esque feel, which could be the difference of ideal vs reality, or the difference of death vs life. The idyllic beach could be Heaven instead of an actual location on Earth for all we know. What we do know is that it is The End for this story.