Friday, June 6, 2014

THE WORLD BELONGS TO SAVAGES -- The Crime Films of Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone is one of the most famous and distinctive living directors in American film. His films tend to be divisive and a font for controversy and criticism, as well as great acclaim.

Are all his films masterpieces? No, though several are.

Are all his films worth seeing, worth talking about? Absolutely.

Stone is most well-known for his political films, films like JFK, Born on the Fourth of July, and Nixon, all of which attempt to take the major symbols of late 20th century history and reconfigure (some would say revise) them into epic tales of the battle for America's soul, and put these events into the framework of familiar and recognizable genres and storytelling forms. The Kennedy assassination becomes the basis for a suspenseful murder mystery. The Vietnam War is the setting for a young man's journey from innocent to victim to hero, using Frank Capra-esque conservative iconography for leftist, subversive purposes. Watergate becomes the act of hamartia that leads to the downfall of a president in the tragedy of Nixon. These political films are fairly well-regarded, though they have their very vocal detractors. Stone's attempts to move into 21st century history have been much less successful in critical and popular terms -- World Trade Center and W.  both are typically regarded as overcooked and under-thought.

However, while those politically-oriented films are what Stone's reputation -- whether positive or negative -- seems to be based around, there exists another pattern throughout Stone's filmography that I find to be under-analyzed, and almost nearly as interesting (if not always as good) as Stone's political films: his crime films.

Four films will be the subject here: in reverse chronological order, they are 2012's Savages, 1997's U-Turn, 1994's Natural Born Killers, and 1983's Scarface, which was directed by Brian De Palma but written by Stone. Though differing in terms of setting, subject matter, and origin (all were adapted from another source, whether it be a novel or a previously published screenplay), these four films exhibit a tremendous amount of connectivity in aesthetic and worldview. Perhaps most intriguingly, these films create a very different tone and POV when compared to Stone's equally distinctive political films.

Stone's films, of all stripes, demonstrate heavy levels of cynicism, paranoia, and fear, but the takeaway in these two varieties of film are different. Stone's political films are highly fearful of the sabotage of the democratic process on behalf of a powerful and influential elite, and of the encroachment on peace and prosperity by the military-industrial complex. In films like JFK and Nixon, black-suited old men sit in smoky, darkened rooms and plot the future of the western world, conspiring to feed lies to an unsuspecting public, ordering invasions and assassinations as easily as you or I order coffee. And they're not unsuccessful. None of Stone's political films end with the forces good triumphing unambiguously over evil. Clay Shaw is found not guilty of assassinating JFK. Ron Kovic finds his purpose in life as an anti-war activist, but there is still much work ahead of him. Nixon leaves office, but the "beast" that put him there is still active. But the tone is altogether idealistic, even quixotic. At the end of these films, Stone wants you to come away from the theatre feeling energized, invigorated, eager to do something to stop the forces of darkness from destroying the American dream. The final scene of JFK might be the clearest example. Jim Garrison walks into the distance, defeated but not broken, head unbowed, while the following text rolls onscreen: Dedicated to the young in whose spirit the search for truth marches on. 

On the other hand, Stone's crime films decide to keep the cynicism and the darkness, but lose the idealism. In the crime films, the world is wicked. And cruel. And you're probably on your own. They display a particularly bleak and nasty dimension, as foreign to most American films as the explicit politicism of Stone's other films. The clearest expression of this is probably in U-Turn. The film, an under-the-radar, quickly forgotten noir fable starring Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Jennifer Lopez, depicts the tragicomic plight of a small-time crook/gambler (Penn) whose car breaks down in a middle-of-nowhere Southwestern town. Penn spends the entirety of the film's 125 minutes trying to get the hell out of town as soon as he can, in order to pay off his debts to a vicious gangster. Various mishaps, both intentional and accidental, prevent Penn from leaving, and he finds himself entangled in a plot of murder and incest far too complicated to summarize here. The film's final act involves so many double-crosses and triple-crosses that a certain point the audience decides to stop getting invested in whatever the current situation is. In the final scene, having outlived both Lopez and Nolte, a badly-injured Sean Penn makes his way to his repaired car and gleefully starts the ignition -- only to find that the car's radiator hose has burst yet again, leaving him stranded and bleeding in the desert. The film's closing moment is defining image of Stone's crime films: a pack of hungry vultures eying a dying and bloody Penn, unable to move, unable to escape. You may outlive your enemies in Stone's world, but at the end of the day, you're stuck in a car that ain't movin', and soon you'll just be lunch.

Stone's crime films are all fairly different in terms of what crimes they cover. Scarface and Savages are both about drug dealers, but Natural Born Killers shows a pair of serial killers, and U-Turn is a classic noir-style about a man asked to commit murder in exchange for quick cash. Nevertheless, they all keep the same tone -- nihilistic, sure that no one is making it out alive, and that it's a fool who tries. It seems a complete 180 from "the search for truth marching on."

Another counterpoint to JFK's postscript is in Scarface. The gangster protagonist rises to the top of Miami's drug game by killing every rival, superior, and competitor that stands in the way, as well as everyone he loves or cares about. In the end, Tony Montana is only truly at home when he stands alone in his mansion, firing round after countless round of machine gun fire at his attackers. Every major character dies, and very bloodily. As the smoke clears, and a pool of blood forms around Montana, a neon sign mocks his character's ambition, and the very idea of ambition, ironically proclaiming "THE WORLD IS YOURS."

Stone's screenplay makes a notable departure from the 1932 original by having its "hero," who in both incarnations dies in a hail of bullets, meet his end at the hands of rival dealers, and not the police. In Stone's world, the representatives of law and order and decent society have no hopes of taking down Tony Montana. They might not even exist. The police are largely absent, and corrupt when they're visible, in Scarface; in Natural Born Killers they're either killers like Tom Sizemore's detective, so deeply fucked up that he sleeps with, then murders prostitutes in his spare time, or self-aggrandizing sadistic martinet's like Tommy Lee Jones' buffoonish bully of a prison warden; Powers Boothe's small town sheriff in U-Turn is an easily-duped stooge; and in Stone's latest, Savages, John Travolta plays a corrupt, paid-off DEA agent who protects a pair of drug dealers in exchange for money, then swoops into a deal in order to make himself a media hero.

And yet these are no "heroic outlaw versus evil copper" stories. The criminals in Stone's films are vicious, even sadistic, and have no real impetus for their crimes other than an all-consuming greed and hunger for more. The drug cartels in Savages shadowy, unrepentant, absolutely ruthless killers, with a taste for the theatrical. They will decapitate people simply to make a threat. When Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson, playing two California boys who get caught up in the drug trade, try to make a deal with them, the cartels force them to show their trustworthiness by torturing and immolating, while he still breathes, a drug lawyer. It is a nasty, hard-to-watch scene. And no one comes out of it looking good. Benicio del Toro's cartel hitman Lado might come closest to summarizing the film's worldview in one scene late in the film. Throughout the film Lado has been training a young protege in the ways of murder. Near the climax, Lado casually shoots and kills the young man, and with a shrug, simply says, "It didn't work out. You're too sensitive." There is no room for the soft, the weak, the sensitive. They won't even make it to the climax. The world belongs to the savages.

Is there any hope at all?

Maybe. But not in a way that is familiar. While U-Turn and Scarface roll credits with every main character having shuffled off the mortal coil, Natural Born Killers and Savages offer something stranger than the blood-soaked stage. Natural Born Killers, detailing the adventures of Mickey and Mallory, a pair of married serial killers who drive around the country committing mass murders for no particular reason, has to kill off everyone but them to even open up the possibility of a better future. Over the course of the film, they have murdered indiscriminately, gotten caught, been sent to jail, caused a jailbreak, killed some more, and finished off Robert Downey Jr.'s wily TV reporter by assuring him that they'll spare one victim: his camera. Over the credits, the couple are seen driving an RV around the country with a brood of kids, while Leonard Cohen's song "The Future" plays. "I have seen the future, brother," the lyric goes, "It is murder."

This ending is fairly baffling. Do Mickey and Mallory, two serial killers who derive legitimate joy from walking into a roadside diner and killing every patron, who say that they have "evolved" to the point where they perceive murder to be pure, really intend to spend the rest of their life living as a kind of '90s Partridge Family? Or are they a new breed of humans who exist in a realm beyond our mere mortal capacity for understanding? Have they evolved? Have they reformed? Will they slide back into old habits? Or do we not even have the vocabulary to talk about who they are and where they're going?

Or to return to Leonard Cohen's words:
"When they said 'repent!' / 'repent!' / I wonder what they meant?"

Savages features an ending that seems not too dissimilar, but raises different questions. To recap, Ben and Chon, two easygoing SoCal pot dealers who share a mutual girlfriend, nicknamed O, find themselves in hot water when they receive a buyout offer from a notorious Mexican drug cartel. When they are reluctant to say yes, O is kidnapped and held as a hostage. All three go on a journey through darkness, getting in touch with the most ugly and evil parts of themselves. Ben, a pacifist and a Buddhist, like Stone himself, allows himself to become a murderer in order to get back the woman he loves. O, who narrates the film, initially presents us with an ending that matches Stone's previous films in body count, where the three all perish in a literal Mexican standoff, and die, beaten and bloodied, in each other's arms. Then O, and Stone, do something very curious. They reveal that the ending we just watched is not what actually happened, but merely what O imagined to happen. The actual result is that Ben and Chon get arrested by the DEA, but spend only a few weeks in jail due to their status as "confidential informants." Then they fall off the face of the earth, as far as the recognizable world is concerned, moving to an unnamed third world country with O, and living, as she puts it, as "savages": "cruel, crippled, reduced to a primal state of being." The film closes over idyllic shots of the trio living out on the edge of the world, in a seeming tropical paradise, while O's narration intones: "One day, maybe, we'll be back. For now, we live like savages. Beautiful savages."

What are we to make of this? Is this a true escape? What does it mean when O says that the first ending was just her "imagination"? Was it a hopeful imagination or a fearful one? In the last scene, O doubts if three people can remain equally in love forever, hinting that perhaps one day, maybe not too far in the future, Ben, Chon, and O will drift apart, and that their love, the one pure thing in the film, will die. Is that truly preferable to the three romantically dying in each other's arms? Is death the preferable world? Is it better to end up like Tony Montana than like Mickey and Mallory? Stone's most recent film leaves us wondering, and the inscrutable look actress Blake Lively, playing O, gives the camera at the end of the film leaves open many possibilities.

These films are difficult to handle. The chainshaw scene in Scarface, though credit probably goes to Brian De Palma, has been the bane of the squeamish moviegoer for more than 30 years. Quentin Tarantino admits to turning off Natural Born Killers (heavily revised from his original screenplay) not too far into the movie, citing a scene which plays Mallory's childhood abuse and molestation as a literal black-and-white sitcom as the reason. I saw Savages twice in theatres, and both times I could sense the audience becoming progressively standoffish and even hostile to the film, particularly during the aforementioned torture and immolation scene, which caused physical recoiling. 

Is this reaction merely due to incompetence of filmmaking? I would say certainly not. Stone is, as Tarantino pointed out, "cinematically brilliant," and is capable of creating images of great beauty (some of the pastoral images presented in Born on the Fourth of July or the overlooked Heaven and Earth are transcendent).

What is it about these films that make them so hard to watch? They simply contain more cruelty than audiences tend to be capable of handling. The characters of Stone's crime films are vicious, nasty, self-interested, sadistic, and above all, cruel. When you compare them to the character's presented in the crime films of that most acclaimed poet of American gangsterism, Martin Scorsese, Stone's characters come off much worse. A closer examination reveals just why:

In Mean Streets, the central character is a guilt-ridden, reluctant, morally conflicted small time criminal, and the characters around him are at worst, stupid and impatient. In Goodfellas, Henry, the narrator, never kills anyone, and is mostly just too lazy to get an honest job, while his mentor Jimmy and his bosses kill out of self-preservation from prosecution and for business reasons. It's cold and ruthless, but the audience understands it. Only Tommy, Joe Pesci's scene stealer of a trigger-happy crook, kills for personal reasons, and even then his killings often stem from insecurity. It's not endearing, but it is humanizing. Casino is similar to Goodfellas; Gangs of New York features a young orphan seeking revenge for his father's murder, something Hollywood films almost always present as downright heroic. And in The Departed, the narratives hinges around a unhinged killer, while the other characters are characterized as being in opposition to him, isolating him and his actions.

In Stone's crime films, people enjoy killing. They do it with a smile. They kill to be cruel, to hurt, to bring others down to their level. They kill for no good reason. They kill because "murder is pure." It's easy to see why these films provoke such hostile reactions.

The casualness of death, and worse, the cruelty of death is something few filmmakers ever try to deal with, and Stone's attitude is one few filmmakers take, that this world is a world of natural born killers and hungry vultures. And you might find your place of peace, however briefly, but at the end of the day, the vultures are in the canyon with you. It's their world, not yours.


  1. I should thank Drew McWeeny, a fine critic whose brief comments from a podcast that I listened to a long time ago proved to be the germ of inspiration for this essay.

  2. Interesting write-up. I had forgotten that U-Turn was a Stone movie. I don't remember it coming with the usual stone hoopla.