In the Drug War, We’re All Savages

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

“There’s good weed everywhere in the world, but my God, these Americans are brilliant.”  So said Oliver Stone, director of the new summer flick, Savages.  Stone was referring to real-life California pot growers, but he may as well have been talking about his characters, Ben and Chon. In the film, these fictional best friends run a lucrative marijuana business in Laguna Beach.  Thanks to the popularity of their buds, they live a hedonistic lifestyle of surfing, swimming, sex, and of course, getting stoned.  They’ve managed to score a beautiful babe, Ophelia (“O” for short), who’s happy to be “shared” by the two guys.

savagesThe threesome lives a dreamy, harmonic existence—until their pot business gets a bit too big for its britches. With such a wildly successful marijuana crop, it’s not long before a powerful Mexican drug cartel wants in on the action.  These criminals mean business, and to prove it, they kidnap O. The rest of the movie shows, in gruesome detail, just how far the two men will go to save the woman they love.

The film is 90% mind-numbing escapism; as viewers, we spent most of our time either wincing at the gratuitous gore or zoning out in front of the smoke-addled screen. At no point, however, did we feel as though we were watching an accurate depiction of the drug trade. From a purely apolitical standpoint, we couldn’t help but agree with Newsday critic Rafer Guzman, who called Savages “a juvenile fantasy of bullets, breasts, and bongs.”

The film’s biggest fallacy, however, is its depiction of the pot trade as a simple case of good guys vs. bad guys. Call it the Weeds syndrome: this new but surprisingly pervasive cliché (exemplified by pot-dealing suburban housewife Nancy Botwin on the TV show Weeds) in which innocent, peaceful, and well-meaning Southern California pot growers/dealers find themselves unwittingly entangled with The Big Bad Mexican Drug Cartel. This oversimplification of roles reinforces Drug War stereotypes—namely, the misconception that drug cartels are all Mexico’s fault.

Judging from the film, you’d think all Mexicans were violent, greedy – and yes, savage – outlaws who are waiting to take advantage of innocent white growers and users this side of the border. This cartoonish portrayal of Mexican drug runners (led by a particularly disgusting rapist/murderer played by Drug War film veteran Benicio Del Toro) ignores the fact that U.S. demand for illicit drugs is the reason behind the Mexican drug supply. Our country’s hunger for mind-altering substances continues to fuel and bolster these cartels, and without our business, they wouldn’t have risen to power in the first place.

Because of this, supply-side solutions to the War on Drugs are insufficient. There is no simple fix; we can’t just take the reins away from the Mexican cartels and place them in the hands of a “clean pot business” like Ben and Chon’s. Instead, we need to acknowledge our own culpability in the failed War on Drugs and figure out why we’re so desperate for these substances. At the beginning of the film, O offers one possible explanation: “Drugs are a rational response to insanity.”  Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean a person’s attempt to escape a crazy world will be risk-free. In O’s case, she has become so dependent on pot that the only thing she asks of her kidnapper is a few tokes to help her “concentrate.”

Ironically, it’s Elena, the Mexican cartel boss, who suggests that O may have a problem. In a strange captor/counselor moment, Elena asks O how long she’s been using and whether her parents know. “They didn’t mind,” O responds. This is the film’s sole discussion of drug misuse. No surprise there; after all, this is not a movie about addiction.  But O’s clear dependence and Elena’s motherly moment remind us that even “natural” drugs have the potential for abuse, and that there’s no universal formula for addiction. It can happen to anyone—even fun-loving, peaceful beauties like O.

In fact, this brief, bizarre interchange between O and Elena is Savages’ most honest moment. It gives us a sneaking suspicion that if he had wanted to, Stone could have made a compelling film about the drug trade. Unfortunately, the bullets, bongs, breasts, and racial stereotypes got in the way.

Kate Schmier and Emma Edelman
Blog Editors
Phoenix House

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