Whatever else you think about Oliver Stone’s directorial style, you have to give him this—he knows how to set a tone. When the opening scene of a movie features a bunch of people being decapitated via chainsaw for an internet video feed, you know you’re in for a lot of stylized ultra-violence and a fair amount of nihilism as well and you are not disappointed. It would be hard to find more graphic depictions of violence anywhere outside the Saw movies or Quentin Tarantino movies. For those of you who enjoy on-screen carnage, degradation, and suffering, filmed in absolutely gorgeous lighting, this movie will be ice cream. For those of you who are more squeamish, please do yourself a favor and stay away.
The movie’s plot ostensibly revolves around two pot lords: soft, sensitive, Zen-loving Ben played by Aaron Johnson (Albert Nobbs) and badass war vet Chon played by Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights). The two best buds and business partners also happen to be sharing the same girl, O, played by Blake Lively (Gossip Girl), who has arguably never been more sensual on screen as Stone covers her with a soft gold focus tone throughout the film. Stone films the threesome’s lifestyle together in Laguna Beach like a Garden of Eden style paradise fueled with plenty of grass.
Paradise is inevitably invaded with an offer from Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek) the leader of a Baja cartel who sees Ben’s and Chon’s network and expertise as crucial to expansion. When the guys halt on taking her offer, she has O taken hostage and of course the rest of the film explores how far the boys are willing to go to get their girl back.
John Travolta makes an amusing appearance as a corrupt DEA agent, and Benecio Del Toro’s enforcer is a great mixture of scary and repulsive. But really it’s Salma Hayek who walks away with the whole movie. Her Elena is both a ruthless cruel criminal kingpin and a strong compassionate maternal presence rolled into one. She’s a woman of contradictions but she never appears inconsistent. And while the original story might have thought the key relationship was O and her love affair with two men or the two men’s love for each other, it’s Elena’s interactions with her captive, O, that are the most electrifying.
Elena is estranged from her own daughter and she quickly begins to use the rather lost O as something of a substitute for the role. (Apparently Hayek and Lively are friends in real life.) It might be Johnson’s and Kitsch’s mugs on the promotional posters but Lively and Hayek are what elevate the film from being not just a return to form for Oliver Stone after some career missteps, but one of his best works yet.