Adams on Reel Women: Salma Hayek’s Working Mom in ‘Savages’

Thelma Adams
The Reel Breakdown

In the battle between the Baja Cartel and the SoCal beach bums that rages in Oliver Stone's "Savages," Salma Hayek plays a thoroughly modern single mom -- who happens to be the head of a Mexican drug cartel. Hayek plays Elena, a sophisticated yummy mummy who has lost her husband, father, brother, and twin sons to drug-war violence. She inherited the family business and enough tragic baggage to crack Lady Macbeth.

In "Savages," based on the Don Winslow novel, Hayek plays a narcotraficante queen, aka "La Reina Elena." She is, in some ways, the female equivalent to Michael Corleone in "The Godfather." Elena wanted to sit back and raise her kids in the luxury and social status that the business made possible, but if she's going to have the reins of power thrust upon her, she's going to do it right, no matter what the personal cost.

[Related: A civilized discussion with Don Winslow, the author and co-screenwriter of 'Savages']

Hayek's female drug queen-pin arrives as a relatively rare character in American movies and television, but her role is a staple in the telenovelas that dominate the global Spanish-language TV market that spawned the American "Ugly Betty," which Hayek produces. Popular female-driven narco-novelas include "La Reina Del Sur" ("The Queen of the South"), "Las Munecas de la Mafia" ("The Mafia Dolls") and "Sin Senos No Hay Paraiso" ("Without Breasts There Is No Paradise").

From her Cleopatra wig to her pedicured toes, Hayek polishes Elena to a high gloss. Elena plays hardball in business negotiations with the pot entrepreneurs Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) via Skype. When Chon uses foul language, Elena insists he put his pistol in his mouth and suck on it to atone for his disrespect, ramping up the old maternal practice of making a kid wash his mouth out with soap for saying a bad word. When Elena senses the pair plans to flee, she sanctions the use of violence -- ordering the kidnapping of their mutual girlfriend O (Blake Lively) -- that sets the plot on fire.

In corporate terms, what Elena is doing is swimming with the sharks. As a woman, she is doubly obligated to mask all weakness. Sure, she can let Ben and Chon peacefully co-exist in a drug world large enough for, to use the film's metaphor, Wal-Mart and Ben and Jerry's. But, that would show weakness in a male-dominated industry defined by violent retribution -- the movie starts with her minions decapitating rivals who wouldn't play along and sharing the snuff video with Ben and Chon as a warning. Any display of weakness on Elena's part would be blood in the water to her competitors, like the slithery El Azul, and to those among her subordinates who would like nothing better than to push her off her pedestal. As a woman, Elena is in a double bind and must out-macho the machos in order to survive and protect her children.

[Related: See showtimes for 'Savages']

Like many working mothers, Elena struggles to integrate her role as mother into her work life. It hasn't been easy. She is estranged from her remaining son (he slunk off when she took his rightful spot in the family business to protect him from certain death). And she has sent her pampered daughter Magdalena (Sandra Echeverria) across the border to assimilation central, UC Irvine. There, her daughter will be laundered like money in the hopes that someday she will succeed and prosper outside the family business.
Elena appears most vulnerable in her infrequent cellphone chats with her ungrateful daughter, busy studying and sexing it up on campus far from the family's tentacles. Elena appears needy. Magdalena walls her mother out. In a telling moment, when Elena is dining with her prisoner, O, over lamb chops (it's clear who the wolf is), La Reina says: "My daughter is ashamed of me. I am proud of her for that."

[Related: Oliver Stone discusses weed, war and 'Savages']

And, although Elena appears in sexy lingerie in many scenes, the boudoir satins and silks only emphasize her loneliness. With her husband dead, and associates as likely to betray her as rivals, she's a prisoner in her own bedroom. She is afraid to submit to anyone in public or private. When she sees Lively's O sleeping with Ben and Chon, Elena's both revolted at the sordidness and envious of the sexual freedom the rootless Americana possesses. The script (unlike the gnarly bisexual plots of the narco-novelas) doesn't even toss Elena a poolboy or a trusted accountant to share her bed, and salve the violent choices she repeatedly makes.

In the end, Elena is the only adult in the room, which doesn't make her likable but certainly makes her relatable. Like many working women in less combustible situations, she finds herself stuck between a rock and a hard place when the choices in the boardroom, bedroom, and playroom conflict. And, yet, she powers on, driven by the determination and dignity Hayek pours into the role. Elena has more character than her daughter or O ever will. When the movie's climactic confrontation arrives, Elena knows the buck stops with her. And that's a very powerful position.

The cast of 'Savages' talks to Yahoo! Movies: