California Schemin’


This movie is California as distilled through a cologne commercial. As wrung out over an H&M advertisement. As basted in poolside chlorine. Oliver Stone’s Savages is hypnotized by its own vacuity. It’s cast and crew are content to capsize reality in favor of strutting down a catwalk of carnality. So vogue. So dangerous. So imperious. All sea foam and sweat slacked muscles. And this Orange County wasteland is shot through a Pacific filter so cobalt that even seagull feathers bleed cyan.

And then those beautiful flecks of green – dotting everything from the Trumer Pils bottles to the foliage that pipes through and around the affluent Laguna Beach area. Cubes of surf wax and salty boards. Feet pounding the sand. Some faraway, hushed tropical music that feels sunburned and alcohol whisked. And in the middle of this aesthetic wonderland, three vapid, emotionally cannibalizing, and empirically attractive people: Ophelia (Blake Lively), Chon (Taylor Kitsch), Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). They are a tapestry of candle wax and sunscreen. Lovers, friends, megalomaniacs. They live in a satirical Southern California landscape, where pockets of dialogue reverberate with the unpleasant sound of a poorly tuned guitar. During a gratuitous sex scene, marbled in a drowsy voiceover, Blake Lively narrates the proceedings. “He’s always trying to fuck the war out of himself,” she concedes when commenting on Chon. “I have orgasms; he has wargasms.” It’s a stunningly artificial vernacular that is both self-aware and sardonic.

Savages is set in a parallel universe, where the California coastline is cake frosting, and its inhabitants speak in atonal poetry. It’s a fever dream. A fallout world where the palm trees are fake art installations in a theme park. This is sci-fi SoCal. House Hunters: Kush Edition. Stone’s farcical visual arc is somewhere between Wong Kar-wai’s radiant compass of colors, and Steven Soderbergh’s obtuse camera work. The landscapes cruise, coast, and traipse by with a half-baked inflection. Perforating this cavalier wheel of warm hues is Benicio del Toro. His character’s belly is nothing but cruel, sociopathic machismo. Expression weathered, lilt full of aggression. A predatory eagle that stretches his feathers before he eviscerates his prey.

The violence is deep, fast, and sycophantic to its delusive themes of California escapism.  It’s shot with artistic aggression – Stone celebrates the ropes of blood as if they were the fountains at the Bellagio. Simple syrup. Or even cocktail grenadine. The Dia de los Muertos masks, worn by Ben and Chon, serve as nothing more than a canvas for color to dance on. Everything is empty, provocative, strange. A snow globe with bullet casings replacing snow flakes. San Diego, OC, Mexico. All fairy tale castles. John Travolta exits his car, midway through the film, with a gleeful expression. He slurps down soda out of a large In N Out cup. The waves are melting into one another in the background. It’s funny, strange, exploratory. A fantasy film.

Though the movie favors power, family, drugs, aggression and sacrifice – at its heart Savages is about the dark whimsy of comfort. SoCal is a caricature of its own culture. The humor, the daft confidence, the erudite nature of its dumb diction. Oliver Stone tapped into something that can only be summed up as “rad”. A posturing of coolness. A goofy foot on a beach’s boardwalk. The warped nature of violence. The simplicity of ice jingling around inside of a paper cup. It is a film that deserves to be seen, even repeatedly, to appreciate its bizarrely rogue tone. As a native Californian, I’m all in.


Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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