When it comes to directors I like my Oliver Stone like I like my women – bat shit crazy. I want images to fly off the screen that have little to do with the story at hand but everything to do with the emotion you should be feelings. Why is there suddenly an animated sequence in Natural Born Killers? Who knows? But it helps covey the feeling of madness that takes hold of that satire on media. Somehow the weird choices he makes work. The quick cuts and black and white footage of JFK are obviously the reason it works. It keeps the story moving. Doesn’t let the audience rest for a single minute. It’s why we are able to process so much complex information so clearly. We are wide eyed. Our senses working overtime. It’s why JFK is one of the greatest films ever made. The technique again was used to perfection in Nixon. These became the trademarks of an Oliver Stone production and I loved them.
I once got to experience this Oliver Stone madness first hand. It was 1997 and I was in film school. U-Turn had just come out. It’s not one of Stone’s best but it did embrace that madness. Bizarre and crazed characters. Sex. Violence. And of course every type of video and film stock he could get his hands on. Oliver came to my college to speak. He had just written a book called “A Childs Night Dream.” Basically it’s a long suicide note from Vietnam. After a an incoherent Q&A (in which when asked about the cinematography in JFK he replied with answers about the music in Natural Born Killers) we were invited to meet this auteur and get him to autograph a copy of his book. Whenever you meet someone you truly admire its nerve-racking situation. You know you can never say anything that will truly wow them, that will make them want to be your new best friend. But you also want to avoid saying the boring standby “I love your work.” Quick side note: After years of telling filmmaker after filmmaker how much I admired their work I vowed with the next one I met I would do nothing of the sort. I would play it cool. It turned out that next person was Diablo Cody. I admired the hell out of Juno but said to myself “Don’t tell her you admired it.” Why? Because I’m an idiot. So instead I approached this ex-stripper cum screenwriter with a simple head nod and a “How’s it going?” Yes it sounded more like I was at a bar and admiring her looks rather than her talent. But back to Oliver who I didn’t make a pass at. I approached him with the dull statement of “I just saw U-Turn. I really liked it.” He took my copy of the book and while signing it, without looking up said “You know what movie you should see?” My heart raced. I was about to get a film recommendation from Oliver Stone. I was sure it was a movie that he watched constantly during the making of U-Turn. Something that inspired him. “What?” I said in an overeager way. “U-Turn” he responded coldly. “But…but I did see U –Turn.” With a glare he slammed my book shut and handed it to me. “See it again.” Now he’s glaring at me. A look of annoyance behind his eyes. This man has seen war. Were film students who ask inane questions his new Viet Cong? Eighteen year old Will was terrified. I walked away and never watched U-Turn again.
Most people would not be an Oliver Stone fan after that encounter. They would say “What a jerk!” But remember, I love crazy. In fact it only made me love the man more. I was there day one for his next film Any Given Sunday. Pure insanity. That same Stone style on overdrive. He even cuts to scenes from the chariot race in Ben-Hur. That film was and still is a ton of fun. It would be five years until he made another feature. In the meantime he made some fascinating documentaries about figures such as Castro (Looking For Fidel) and Arafat (Persona Non Grata). But finally came Alexander and with it a lot of problems. The film still used creative choices of old Stone. But it was mixed with an unfocused story and bizarre performances including a strange Angelina Jolie accent. I have friends who think it’s a misunderstood masterpiece or at least a beautiful car wreck. I’ve often thought of revisiting it. On DVD there are multiple versions available. The theatrical cut, the director’s cut and Alexander: The Final Cut which apparently is Stone’s preferred cut. You’d think the director’s cut would be preferred but no. Why? Bat shit. Alexander wasn’t the biggest problem with Stone’s career. The biggest problem came with his next film – World Trade Center.
Let me say from the start World Trade Center is not a bad film. It’s painfully average. Pleasant even. Now it might sound insensitive to call a film about the largest attack on America “pleasant” but that’s the problem. I don’t want Oliver Stone to make a pleasant film. There were no conspiracy theories. There wasn’t even a scene with an Indian! It was a heartwarming story of two firemen that were pulled from the rubble on 9/11. One of them was played by Nic Cage and it was still a subdued film! But I gave it a pass. Everyone should try something new. It was Stone’s least Oliver Stone-y film yet. After that came W a film that I actually think is misunderstood. If it came out ten years from now I think we would look at it as a fascinating dissection of our 43rd President. But Bush was still in office. Making this film at that time was a miscalculation on Stone’s part. The right would criticize him for making our President look like a fool. The left would be upset that Stone gave George Bush humanity. That you had empathy for the man. For those two reasons alone I loved the film. But it wasn’t vintage Stone. It wasn’t Nixon. No slow dissolves of a bloody steak to scenes of war. Crazy to make the film. Sure. But not directed with Stone’s raw craziness. He felt held back.
The biggest travesty of all came with Wall Street 2. A sequel to the classic film Wall Street sounded ridiculous. But with the economy in the toilet and Wall Street being blamed but bailed out for our current woes it seemed like a meaty edgy subject for Stone to explore. Instead it was the best evidence that Oliver had lost his teeth. He had mellowed with age. The film was less about finance and greed and more about family. The ending is appalling with Gordon Gekko caring more about being a father and grandfather than the shark he once was. There’s no edge to it. I was ready to close the book on Oliver Stone – bat shit auteur. I was going to try and embrace the new Stone to the best of my abilities. Then last week I saw Savages.
Savages is not perfect. But it is a damn good ride. That visceral kinetic violence that Stone does so well was back. The opening is dark with a cartel beheading the competition with a chainsaw. This was the Oliver Stone of Natural Born Killers. This was the writer of Scarface. What’s that? A random shot of a flower opening up? Is that a black and white footage of clouds racing across the sky? Oliver Stone was sexy again. He was down and dirty too. The moment when Blake Lively spits in the face of Benicio Del Toro (a brilliant psycho) is timed just right with an orgasm on a cell phone video. That’s an Oliver Stone moment. That’s what I had been missing since Willy Beamen rapped about keeping the ladies creamin’ in Any Given Sunday. Look, it’s still toned down as compared to NBK… but then again what isn’t. The point is after a few films with little to no teeth this is a big step in the right direction.
Although I enjoy the film the ending to Savages doesn’t work. It tries to have its cake and eat it too. It does so in a bizarre way that I can’t quite describe without the use of the words spoiler alert. But I can’t really complain about it too much. After all, at least its bat shit crazy.
Will Link is one hosts of the weekly film and pop culture podcast, Will. Sean. Podcast? Check out new episodes every weekend, each featuring a different guest.