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Natural Born Killers

video review out of 4

*Also starring: Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Edie McClurg, Rodney Dangerfield, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Rachel Ticotin, Denis Leary, Steven Wright

Review by Jerry Saravia
No Rating Supplied

"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 trusted guards.

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

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