Before I went to see Oliver Stone’s latest offering, “Savages”, I was talking to my sister (who is awesome and totally gave me permission to tell this story). She had already seen it and when I asked her what she thought, she responded by issuing me a challenge: “Blog me this”, she said. “Why do movies have to be so violent?” Well sis, this one’s for you…
First it would probably help to clarify what she means by “violent” in this context. We’re talking the graphic, gory, gruesome, extreme, fingers-over-your-eyes, in-your-face kind of violence. This is not like the yuk-yuk “violence” of the Three Stooges or comic-book type violence ala football-in-the-groin.
(And the role of violence in comedy and vice versa is another discussion entirely.) Suffice it to say, the violence in question involves dangling eyeballs and projectile brain matter. Am I imagining things… or didn’t these kinds of images used to be limited to “slasher” and “horror” flicks?
To be clear, I’m not going to enter into the debate of whether or not violence in film causes interpersonal violence in real life. That to me is a chicken-and-egg situation: are people more violent because of the media we’re exposed to, or is our media more violent because we are? Let’s not oversimplify a deeply complex issue. Clearly violence and culture (as represented in movies and other forms of entertainment) are intimately related and intertwined. The recent shooting in Colorado, where a gunman opened fire during a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” killing 12 people and injuring dozens more, is an all too real and tragic reminder of this.
But in responding to my sister’s plea, I’m going to focus more on the relationship between violence and quality filmmaking. Is it necessary to the story? Does it make the movie better? Would the movie be great (or as good) without those shots/sequences? Would the story exist without the violence?
In the case of “Savages”, the level of violence does seem necessary to the story. Oliver Stone’s plot involves a Mexican drug cartel’s methods of taking over a small but prolific grow-op. They don’t play nice. And we wouldn’t buy it if they did. We do need to be shocked so that when the relatively small-time growers (played by Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson) struggle with their place in the frenzied and vicious world they’ve been thrust into, we need to struggle right along with them. We need to feel the same revulsion they feel.
Case and point: to paraphrase a 2010 interview given by Quentin Tarantino, “I feel like a conductor and the audience’s feelings are my instruments. I will be like, “Laugh, laugh, now be horrified”… When someone does that to me I’ve had a good time at the movies”. (Check out video highlights from this interview here). He’s made a brilliant career banking on the idea that violence is what makes movies good. Maybe this is true for some (clearly!), but the trade-off is that violence might also be the reason people don’t see it. You often hear people say things like, “That’s a great film, but I don’t think I can watch it.” Some notable examples in this camp would be “A Clockwork Orange”, “Passion of the Christ”, the “Kill Bill” series, “Reservoir Dogs” (come to think of it, pretty much anything by Tarantino). I still haven’t seen “Passion of the Christ” for just this reason.
I confess that I was also a bit reluctant to see “Savages” because I anticipated how extreme the violence would be, but was won over by the likelihood there would be a solid payoff for my discomfort. Consider the cast: Salma Hayek as the calculating yet still human cartel boss, Benicio Del Toro as her ruthless and disturbing enforcer, John Travolta as the slimy, self-interested DEA agent. (And the scenes with these acting heavyweights are by far the most entertaining and absorbing in the film). But there were parts of this movie I literally didn’t see – I shifted my sight-line and outwardly cringed during the particularly intense torture scenes. Again, I don’t really “review”, but my two cents is that it was worth seeing, despite the gore, but I also can’t really say I “enjoyed” this movie. It’s certainly not the feel-good movie of the year.
So maybe this sheds some light on my sister’s question (or, maybe not). Will you see Savages? Or do you agree with the guy who overheard her side of our phone conversation and told her he thought he’d go see “Brave” instead? (True story!)