Natural Born Killers (1994)
By: Michael McQueen on December 5, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Warner Bros (Australia). Region 1 & 4, NTSC. 1:85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1, French 2.0. English, French, Spanish, Portuguese Subtitles. 119 minutes
The Movie
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr, Tom Sizemore, Tommy Lee Jones, Rodney Dangerfield
Screenplay: Oliver Stone, David Veloz, Richard Rutowski, story by Quentin Tarantino
Music: Brent Lewis
Tagline: "The media made them superstars!"
Country: USA
For cinephiles everywhere, Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers never fails to polarise opinion into 'love it' or 'loathe it' camps. The problem with reviewing NBK is that every aspect of the film's construction, from its moralising finger-shaking diatribes at popular media to the mosaic of nauseating psychedelic imagery and contrived hyperbolic baroque, can be valorised as visionary by one critic and then derided as childishly churlish by another. You can never win with this film.

Natural Born Killers is the story of Mickey and Mallory Knox: a couple keen to unshackle themselves from their oppressive directionless existences by going on an anarchic killing spree across America. Their criminal career is soon the stuff of public fantasy and adoration: celebrity serial killers become pin-ups and poster children for a nihilistic nation desensitised to depravity and embracing violence with an almost religious zeal. Keen to cash in on this fundamentalist media circus, scummy journalists, pop-culture bottom feeders and sub-human leeches descend on Mickey and Mallory, eager to turn them into sex symbols for a generation hip to the sound of gunshots and claret. But Hollywood isn't ready for Mickey and Mallory, who have no desire to play the media game or attend press junkets. No, these two are, and will always be, natural born killers: and they're going to show America how far they're prepared to go to prove it.

Natural Born Killers was born of Stone's disillusionment with America's media wasteland of the Nineties, eager to capitalise on the violent delights of the real world by commodifying them as entertainment. Social commentary combines with a farcical take on the doomed romance of classical American cinema: Bonnie and Clyde-meets-A Clockwork Orange. Not content with simple storytelling, Stone wildly veers in to egomaniacal satire: the violent Hollywood film commenting on the violent Hollywood film. Can Natural Born Killers sustain all this self-reflexive demagoguery, or does Stone's vision only amount to indulgent gratuitousness and very little else?

The most striking thing about stone film is how it looks: a visual kaleidoscope of 'found' (read: stolen) footage owes as much to Kenneth Anger as it does to the contrived Hollywood hackwork Stone is renowned for. Hand-held cameras are gratuitously exploited to their most faux-verite potential, which displays a compositional ineptitude and complete lack of aesthetic sensitivity towards the characters and the audience by the cinematographer. Take not here of Stone's immediate emphasis on colourful surfaces and superficialities: they set a precedential tone for the two hours which follow.

Quentin Tarantino's original screenplay has been gutted, embalmed, restuffed and stitched back up. It is devoid of Tarantino's charm, wit and humour, completely lacking in pathos, romance or anything else substantial. Ironically, Stone was one of Tarantino's most vehement critics, denouncing his playfully referential cinema as devoid of meaning: 'movies about movies'. Sooner or later, Stone said (and I'm paraphrasing), Tarantino would have to start making films about life – an interesting accusation in light of Natural Born Killers. When Tarantino's lucre started rolling in, Stone quickly changed his tune: he read the signs, followed the trend. NBK arrived on the wave of Nineties brutality films like Reservoir Dogs, Man Bites Dog, John Woo's Hard Boiled and Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant. It's almost comical watching Stone ape these films, desperate to cash in and mimic their cool energy, copying their visual style, humping them dry whilst paradoxically damning the commoditisation of violence into a hip and fashionable cinematic trend.

Stone's accompanying rhetoric is heavy-handed and didactic. The cartoon violence with which he pummels his audience is Stone's critique of violence in the media: a farcical pantomime of the television's true-crime genre beamed into millions of homes every night, "buying and selling fears". The knowing director chastises his audience, pointing at our folly, holding up the proverbial mirror to society; and we, the gormless guinea pigs, the mass of trembling lambs, balk in horror – 'How did we ever let it get this bad?' The fatal flaw Stone makes in NBK is that he believes he is in any position to criticise, and that his audience are a clueless mass of slobbering morons. This is the man who has delighted in confronting the movie-going public with images of violence and depravity: the gruesome war epic, Platoon (which he directed); the drugged up debauchery and incest fantasy of Scarface (which he wrote); he is even guilty of sensationalising one of America's most historically sensitive moments: the assassination of JFK. To then turn around and chastise the media and the public for being irresponsible and bloodthirsty is blatant hypocrisy and perpetrates a horrible double standard. The message seems to be that it's okay for Stone to create realistic violence and carnage in the great unreality of the cinema, provided it's rammed down our throats with a condescending moral that insults the intelligence, but that the media's reporting of actual violence occurring in the world somehow becomes irresponsible, reprehensible and exploitative: making murderers into messiahs and serial killers into celebrities. It's a slippery moral high ground for Stone and he lacks the balance (or, rather, equilibrium) to deliver his sermon with any of the authority necessary for conviction.

The characters are, by and large, unlovable caricatures; poorly developed sketches who are in such dire need of flesh they may as well be skeletons. Mickey and Mallory are essentially pegs for Stone to hang his dramatic themes on – ciphers for his pop sociology and media politicking – and they lack any real human qualities. Such qualities are essential for us to spare some sympathy for their plight, or at least transform them into compelling characters. The edgy characterisations of their precursors come from the humanistic imperative behind homicidal fiend: Hannibal Lecter's refined hedonism; Norman Bates' sociopathic lover boy etc. Any redeeming qualities that might otherwise let us identify, or at least sympathise with Mickey and Mallory, are absent. Stone's characters are merely vehicles for his pedantic agenda.

Juliette Lewis indulges in her trailer trash bitch persona to near self-parody, hamming up her slow Southern drawl to its most exacerbating effect, delivering dialogue like it were drooling out the side of her slack-jawed mouth. Woody Harrelson, on the other hand, does a brilliant turn as the deranged psychopathic killer cum blood-drenched media messiah, honing the finer points of his character to truly menacing effect. Lewis is hopelessly miscast alongside one of Indiewood's best character actors, and she often flounders in Harrelson's formidable shadow. The rest of the cast suffers from similar malaises: their characters are too hyperactive, too close to parody and completely devoid of believable motivation or imperative. Every emotion is militantly declared, every thought blurted out; there is no room for subtlety here. Random impulse dominates Natural Born Killers far too much; none of the characters come off as believable, and all fail to push the boundaries of one-dimensionality: Tom Sizemore plays the crooked cop with a homicidal itch and a fetish for brutality; Tommy Lee Jones is the redder-than-redneck prison Warden; Steven Wright cameos as a typically droll TV psychologist. Robert Downey Jr (putting on a truly atrocious Aussie accent) plays journalistic parasite Wayne Gale, a bottom-feeding vampire out to make a buck off Mickey and Mallory's rampage. The films embodiment of all that is sick, depraved and leech-like in our society, Wayne Gale never evokes our sympathy but, oddly enough, never really evokes our contempt either: he is too comical, too much of a caricature, too sketchily drawn for us to even conceive of him as remotely believable; in short, he's just another superficial surface in Stone's twisted universe. Downry Jr is strangely uncharismatic in this role which provides him many opportunities to act out the ludicrously unlovely attributes of his persona, but never to push his character beyond single dimensionality. Ironically, he provides the film with its most profound and inadvertently self-reflexive statement: "This is junk food for the brain: filler, fodder – whatever!" Aside, that is, from this pearler from Woody Harrelson: "I keep wondering why they keep making all these stupid fucking movies!"

Natural Born Killers suffers misaerably from its vast shortcomings: one dimensional antagonists, a thoughtless narrative and a moralising allegory that's condescending and hypocritical coming from Stone, Hollywood's Duke of Drek. There's no misunderstanding Natural Born Killers, no sudden epiphany, no intellectual reprieve: it is as shallow, derivative and vacuous as it appears on the surface. It lacks is a heart and soul (if you'll forgive the nasty stab at Downey Jr) but it doesn't seem to want or desire those things. Rather, it is content with its vacuousness: it is nourished by its energy, its flippancy, its obnoxiousness and its attitude. These things are not enough: Tarantino's cinema may go no further than recreating his favourite cinematic moments, but he can at least be excused on the grounds of his genuine love of filmmaking and his dedication to the medium. Stone's film reeks with the putrid stench of cynicism and money grubbing. Far from being a damning indictment of popular media culture, NBK is the indulgent project of a director disappearing into his own colon and insisting on taking us with him. This is not a good place to be.
Some films should never be viewed whilst inebriated: Natural Born Killers is one of them. The visuals are psychedelically lurid and Stone's masturbatory cinematography regularly over-indulges in gratuitously conceived, hyperkinetic handy-cam antics which are hard enough to watch sober. Sparing moments of normalcy (or what passes for it in NBK) have their fair share of violence and mayhem, so intoxicants are best avoided entirely. Stone cobbled together various film stocks, from grainy black and white 16mm to squeaky clean 35mm colour, to achieve the erratic visual scope; allegedly, over 18 different film formats were strung together. Furthermore, jumps in time and a complete absence of cohesion make the narrative frustrating and infuriating to follow. Presented in 1:85:1 aspect ratio with 16:9 enhancment, the variety of formats, and their equally variable quality, make for a surreal and kaleidoscopic experience that, whilst being admirably experimental, doesn't quite achieve that 'dangerous' element Stone was hoping for, instead coming off as contrived and hyperbolic. Funnily enough, this film has dated rather poorly in comparison to its Nineties ilk. Loudness never equates to attitude, and true style never announces itself in such a manner – something Tarantino's gift for visual understatement should have taught Stone.
Presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1, Stone's aural soundscapes are as eclectic as the visual material – like flipping radio stations, songs fade in and out of the speakers with random frequency that is just as infuriating. When he goes for the jugular, Stone is an intuitive interpreter of other people's material: Patti Smith's 'Rock and Roll Nigger'; the Cowboy Junkies' cover of 'Sweet Jane'; Rage Against The Machine's 'Take The Power Back'; Leonard Cohen's 'The Future' all feature in some aggregated form or another, flashing by quickly or lingering slowly. But these too are utilised too obviously for their overwrought cinematic effect and currency. Rather then prompt interpretation through suggestion, Stone is just as happy to bludgeon us over the head.
Extra Features
Natural Born Killers is well fleshed out by supporting material that's informative and engages well with its director and actors who impart some energy and enthusiasm into the proceedings. The highlight is doubtlessly Chaos Rising, a making-of documentary that includes generous interviews with Stone and the entire main cast, who are more charismatic and engaging than they were in film (with the exception of a dour and moody Tommy Lee Jones). Insights into the film's creative gestation are revelatory: would it surprise you to know that Stone and his producer were taking mushrooms at the time? True story. More interesting trivia: the film's riot sequences were actually shot in a prison with 450 real inmates, all serving consecutive life sentences; Robert Downey Jr is just as attractive to sex-starved inmates as Juliette Lewis (alright, Bobby!); Woody Harrelson's father was actually imprisoned for being a hitman! Things are light-hearted and genuinely fun but quickly degenerate into self righteousness when Stone ascends the soapbox and starts blabbering about "the media distorting value systems" and runs for cover in his ivory tower of 'misunderstood satire'. None of which is at all convincing as he wallows in an arrogant air of self-congratulation and smug delusions of grandeur – "I didn't censor myself at all" – completely oblivious to the fact that his film is, at best, a horrible misfire; at worst, a giant turkey. He even has the nerve to chastise other Nineties auteurs for their depiction of violence, which he brands "morally repugnant", whilst claiming he could never descend to that sort of hip poseur cool – "I've been to 'Nam; I know what guns can do". The rest of the crew titter along with this media bashing, apparently in a state of self-denial that if it weren't for violent media (and violent films like NBK) most of them would be floundering in uninspired melodrama and soft romantic comedy roles. Most of these actors owe their careers to edgy independent films that gain notoriety for their graphic depictions of violence (Juliette Lewis: Kalifornia and Dusk Till Dawn; Tome Sizemore: True Romance). It's a bitter experience watching these people rave about 'responsibility' and the need for change, effectively biting the hands that feed them, and doubtlessly happy to accept whatever profits a film like NBK will make off of violence-hungry audiences (something Stone must be all too aware of).

Elsewhere there is the usual assortment of extras: Deleted Scenes with introductions that glimpse at some truly over-the-top carnage (and a particularly nasty rape scene by Harrelson); text filmographies for the main cast and Stone; Director's commentary by Stone; theatrical trailers; and an additional interview with Stone (by this time I'd well and truly had enough of the man). The real surprise here is an alternate ending that delivers an appropriate retributive finale for Mickey and Mallory. Stone introduces the scene, justifying its deletion: "In the Nineties, they get away with it – people do". Unfortunately, he also hints that the ending on the theatrical release keeps his options for a sequel open. Let's hope that Stone is never tempted to look inside his colon a second time.

Overall, this is a well put together package that leaves no fan (or otherwise) wanting for more material.
The Verdict
If we take in all these arguments praising NBK, and all those arguments decrying it, we could simply place an each way bet and slap on a compromising 3 out of 5 - 'average' – in the hope that this will placate both sides. But of all the words that could describe NBK, 'average' isn't one of them. What's more, if we were to work on this principle, all movies would receive a compromised rating to spare the feelings of our readers. Fuck that. I didn't become a film critic to care about other people's opinions. The more you sit on the fence the further it pokes up your arse. So in the interest of keeping my rectum fence-free, I'm standing by my convictions.
Movie Score
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