"Natural Born Killers" is the kind of over-the-top nonsense only Oliver Stone
could make. He is a brilliant director and, throughout his fine career, has
crafted fine films such as "J.F.K," "Wall Street," "Platoon," "Talk Radio"
and "Born on the Fourth of July." "Natural Born Killers" may be his weakest
film by far and his most self-indulgent, a film where he claims to have not
censored himself. Nothing in Stone's kaleidoscopic imagery from "The Doors"
can begin to describe the superfluous flourishes of what is essentially the
most controversial film of 1994.
The "Killers" in this movie are two white-trash kids named Mickey and
Mallory, played respectively by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis. The
blonde-haired, vicious Mickey is in prison for grand theft auto but he still
has the hots for the young, sexy, alluring Mallory Knox who frequently visits
him in prison. Through pure intervention or "fate" (Mickey's own philosophy),
he escapes from prison on horseback during a tornado and proceeds to rescue
Mal from her vile parents by murdering them. How vile? Porcine Rodney
Dangerfield plays Mallory's incestuous, blubbering wrestling fanatic of a
father who is beaten to death and drowned (the mother is tied to a bed and
burned to a crisp and Mal's brother is left as the sole survivor). After this
already cartoonish sequence of violence, the two lovebirds go on the run, get
married by an enormous New Mexico gorge, and indulge in a murderous spree all
around the West killing at least fifty people. Naturally, Mickey and Mallory
are branded as celebrities by another cruel force of nature, the media! The
two killers are depicted as sexy criminals admired by globally by
desensitized twentysomething fools who call them, "the best thing to happen
to the media since Charles Manson." One grungy character ironically admits
that if he were a serial killer, he would be Mickey and Mallory!
The Bonnie and Clyde pair are eventually caught by a crazed cop/writer, Jack
Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) who specializes in writing about the minds of serial
killers and in breaking women's necks. Tommy Lee Jones is the prison warden
who is nearly as loony as any inmate in his prison where M and M are kept.
And let's not forget Robert Downey Jr. as Wayne Gayle, an Australian TV host
for the high-rated show "American Maniacs," who is eager to interview Mickey
in a live special after the Super Bowl in the hopes of beating the ratings
for the infamous Manson trial. This all ends in pure fire and fury during an
eerily effective, blood-on-the-walls prison riot climax that remains the most
horrifying footage Stone has ever shot on film.
I must say that I hated "Natural Born Killers" when I first saw it in a
theatre in August of 1994. I knew the reactions of the primarily young
audience in the theatre - who laughed and cheered at Mickey's actions during
a particularly vicious opening sequence - was a definite sign of how times
were changing. 1994 was the year where "Pulp Fiction," released a month
later, changed film forever with its portrait of criminal antiheroes as the
protagonists to root for. With "Natural Born Killers," the visual style is
what bothered me the most initially. I could not sit still and watch such
disorienting images coming in at a faster clip per second than say the
bullets of a gun. I gave it a second chance much later on video and I can say
that it is not as visually exhausting as it was in theatres. There are
performances that stand out amidst all the noise. For example, Tom Sizemore
does a marvelous job of balancing sorrow and sheer apathy for his character
Jack, who grows more and more attached to the wild Mallory. Robert Downey Jr.
is hilarious and pathetic as the loquacious TV host who will do anything for
higher ratings, even if it means killing people himself. There are also some
volatile turns by Joe Spinelli and Pruitt Taylor Vince as the warden's most
What works to a lesser degree is Tommy Lee Jones, overacting as much as
anyone else in the movie - a simply cartoonish character who would be at home
in a Road Runner short. It is hard to remove the memory of Woody Harrelson
from TV's "Cheers" - he appears to be too nice to play such a rough character
like Mickey. Harrelson does try and there is a nicely underplayed scene where
he is interviewed by Downey and claims his rather unbelievable reasons for
bloodletting (all based on the words of Charles Manson during an infamous
Geraldo Rivera interview).
Mallory is played superbly by Juliette Lewis and she certainly stands out the
most in Stone's universe. She manages to make Mallory into a beautiful,
believably scary and sometimes sweet monster almost ready to explode at any
moment. Lewis is so good and inhabits the movie so often that becomes the
soul center of the amoral world of this movie. This performance was so
unusual for Lewis considering she's played mostly ordinary girlish types in
films like "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" - the closest in proximity to
Mallory is Lewis's role in "Kalifornia" and a TV movie she did with Brad Pitt
called "Too Young to Die." Her work in "Natural Born Killers" will long be
remembered, especially when she memorably utters "How sexy do you think I am
now punk?" before brutally pounding an overzealous male. Lewis's appearance
changes dramatically from short black hair to long blonde wigs, and she also
wears cowboy hats, outlandish dresses, and bright red lipstick complete with
a dangling cigarette.
Part of Oliver Stone's problem is that he has no idea of how to direct a
satire or to steer it in the right direction - he is just out to thrill us. A
satire can makes it points truly through exaggeration but also through
pointed black humor. Consider Stanley Kubrick's anti-violent masterpiece "A
Clockwork Orange" which is done with far more subtlety and restraint. One can
argue that "Natural Born Killers" is not meant to be a satire but a mere
condemnation of our media-obsessed world where killing is a stepping stone to
celebritism on the same wavelength as movie stars. But even an outright
condemnation needs a little breath of air or else you end up cancelling
yourself out - you can't fire with fire. Stone has made a desensitized movie
about desensitized killers and has filled the canvas with lots of cartoonish
violence - the sort of violence one would associate with an Arnold
Schwarzeneger movie not an Oliver Stone flick. The violence is silly and
trivial with none of the reality evident in Stone's hard-hitting war films
such as "Platoon" or "Born on the Fourth of July." Sure, it is a movie about
amoral killers in a typically amoral, devalued society but such rampant
amorality would have served Ollie better as a sharp character study.
Amorality is all that represents Mickey and Mallory, and what saves them in
the end is love ("Love beats the demon.") They are essentially romantic
rebels wronged by society for acting out their fantasy of a post-modern road
movie where killers kill and get away with it. Since every other character in
the film is as nasty and dehumanized as they are (particularly Scagnetti and
the warden), then it is difficult not to empathize with Mickey and Mallory.
This point-of-view was represented by Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange" but not to
the degree that Stone's film does. After all, "Clockwork's" killer
protagonist Alex is far more human and clever than all the cartoonish types
in this film, and thus a thematically richer film dealing with the nature of
violence and how it can't be controlled.
Visually, Oliver Stone is on a dizzying mind trip as he continually shifts
our point-of-view using everything from color to black-and-white to color
negatives, scratchy film, 35mm, 16mm, video and stylized animation in various
film stocks and speeds. These shifts in images are not sparingly used - they
usually occur within one specific scene. The editing is brilliant, the
filmmaking is dazzling (courtesy of noted cinematographer Robert Richardson),
yet the overall effect is nauseating (there are reportedly 3,000 images in
the entire film). If Ollie chose to use this breakthrough editing technique
less frequently, then his various opinions of Mickey, Mallory and the media
would have beem more fully realized.
The best scenes in "Natural Born Killers" are the quiet ones where Stone
allows motion to move smoothly without bludgeoning the camera. I love the
scene after the ultraviolent cafe attack where Mallory dances on top of a car
(to the tune of Cowboy Junkies' version of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane") and
superimposed images of angels, red horses, and bright colored lights flash
by. There is also the masterfully edited and composed scene where Mickey and
Mallory declare their love for each other by a bridge overlooking a gorge.
They make a blood pact, eschewing the traditional wedding engagement, and
their blood trickles into the water in animation style forming twin serpents
(a recurring motif in the film).
After having seen "Natural Born Killers" twice, I am convinced that Stone's
grandiose visions are spectacular to watch but storywise, the film is
interestingly muddled. I recommend the experience of watching this film but
only as a visual odyssey of rampant images, a crosscutting style of excess.
It is a film I am not able to take off my mind, and everyone will read it
differently. Some will see it as a dangerous polemic of our times and others
will see it as the very same trashy exploitative violence that Stone was only
pretending to skewer. It makes you wonder how one should view this film when
we are asked to root for the remorseless killers.
Copyright © 2001 Jerry Saravia