A film review by Craig J. Koban




10th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1994, R, 123 mins

Mickey Knox: Woody Harrelson / Mallory Knox: Juliette Lewis / Wayne Gale: Robert Downey, Jr. / McClusky: Tommy Lee Jones / Mallory's Dad: Rodney Dangerfield

Directed by Oliver Stone /  Screenplay by David Veloz, Richard Rutowski, and Oliver Stone

“Films have to be subversive in order for them to be any good, because  they force you to look for and ask hard questions that don’t have simple and easily defined answers.”

-Oliver Stone 

Oliver Stone’s NATURAL BORN KILLERS remains, even ten years after its formal theatrical release, one of the most formally structured satires and farces ever made.  It also, unfortunately, has been one of cinema’s most controversial and least understood films. 

Like Stanley Kubrick’s 1973 masterpiece, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Stone’s blood-drenched essay is not so much an exploitation film as it is a keenly and exquisitely realized art house flick with serious subtexts and pertinent themes.  Both films contain violence, but the thing that most people get completely wrong about them is that violence and bloodshed are merely the content of the film, but not the subject matter. 

Buried beneath what’s on the screen is the context of violence or the media craze that often helps to act as a predicating catalyst to violence.  Television and the media, even more now than in 1994, helps to perpetually create and foster a feeding frenzy of fear in the viewing public.  The sense of obtuse and artificial hysteria that is frozen in television images and the strange and hypnotic milieu it fosters and creates is more deplorable than any of the violent actions that the serial killers in the film perpetrate. 

To elaborate further, NATURAL BORN KILLERS is about the media’s ever-growing coverage of the crimescape that pummels our daily lives and establish vile and deplorable people that commit random acts of brutal violence in the same reverence as pop stars.  The film never panders to its audience; it makes them think constructively and critically at its subject.  It screams out, “Ok, you see the obvious physical violence in the piece, but what’s the tertiary levels of the film?  What else is it about?” 

That’s what NATURAL BORN KILLERS tries to accomplish.  It’s about how the modern media has ostensibly de-sorted our value system  where we have become desensitized to the point of boredom.  We are so inundated by endless channels that broadcast much of the same sensationalist and seedy coverage that we’ve become a nation of drones that hungrily feed off it.   All the channels on the various networks are scarily the same and there is a haunting conformity that is paralyzing and governing our daily lives. 

Stone’s film is a sarcastic, chaotic, energetic, and impassioned riot and revolt versus this media system.  To him and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, the real criminals are not the killers, but the media and media state – they are the modern enemy and the subversive message that is buried beneath  at the core is that WE are the problem.  The civilization of the gross spectacle has become so perverted that we hardly blink an eye with anything we see on TV and, in  turn, a frightening transference takes place to the point where we start to relate to criminals and serial killers and revere them on a much-too-high  pedestal.   These themes were nerve-wracking to many.  The  journalists of 1994 either praised the film as genius or trashed it for its anti-media message.  Maybe they hated it because, in some sort of crazy way, Stone is right about them. 

NATURAL BORN KILLERS is the poster child for pieces of modernist art that are trashed by the ignorant moral majority (and Bob Dole) before they have even seen one frame of it.  It’s a notion that is as problematic as it is unnerving and annoying.  The film is definitely not as violent as some of its critics let on it is (THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is - viscerally at least - ten times as violent), but the one thing that scares the critics (and the MPAA) is the feverous energy and chaos of the film.  It just may be one of the most emotionally draining films ever made.  It contained upwards of over 3000 individual cuts and edits (most films are lucky to have over 600).   How the editors  were not nominated or even won an Oscars for their watershed work here proves the ridiculous lack of foresight and justice that the Academy has (the film did not garner one Oscar nomination in any category). 

Stone also  used multiple film-making techniques (18 to be exact) such as Super 8, 35mm color and black and white film stock, video tape, crude animation, slow motion and fast motion, montages and collages with rear and front projection…everything but the kitchen sink.  It's arguably the most daring experimental film ever accomplished, as it’s a testament to the strong and confident vision of its director.   For a film that contains insane characters breaking all of the rules, it seems all the more appropriate that the director behind the scenes should break all of the formal cinematic rules in order to make the film.  It’s a film that’s an auditory and visual two-hour assault on the senses,  mixing the satirical mentality of a Kubrick, the violent and poetic imagery of a Peckinpah, and the surrealistic and disjointed imagery of a Goddard.  There’s no mistaking it…NATURAL BORN KILLERS is an avant-garde masterpiece, and how Stone did not receive a much deserved Oscar nomination for direction is a crude miscarriage of Oscar deservedness. 

The film was spawned in its inception as an original screenplay by Quentin Tarantino (who was then thrilling audiences in 1994 with his crime-noir PULP FICTION).  NATURAL BORN KILLERS was his first screenplay, a very loosely inspired story of real life serial killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, a couple who in 1958 embarked on a mass murder spree that horrified the country.  The script was so radically rewritten by three other writers (including Stone) that the resulting version only had minor and superficial similarities to Tarantino’s original work.  In fact, the script underwent such an overhaul that the Oscar winning screenwriter has nearly publicly disowned the film.  Mentioning this serves as a fascinating historical footnote to the film itself.  In Tarantino’s youthful hands a significantly different picture would have emerged, one that would have been highly different in tone, mood, and sensibilities from Stone’s final version. 

The final script as written details the serial killing exploits of the latest all-Americans, Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, both equally deserving of Academy consideration).  They are two new  mass murderers who go on a killing spree across America.  They are the type of smart killers that always ensure that there is a survivor at every scene to tell the media (the only entity fuels their press and stature) who did the nasty deeds.  Yes, the film is a violent odyssey into their deranged and twisted minds, but it also details the equally immoral ways at how the modern media covers them and the methodology they incorporate to electrify the viewers to be taken in by their murders. 

In one horrifically comic and satiric scene, when Mickey and Mallory are captured and taken to their trial, crowds of “fans” await their arrival and one even carries a “Kill me next, Mickey” sign.  Another fan, in the film’s most chilling and revealing moment, tells a TV interviewer, “Mass murder is wrong, but if I were a mass murderer, I'd be Mickey and Mallory!"  It is this heightened state of moral bankruptcy, emotional detachment and overall emptiness of these people that seems more horrific than the crimes of the killers themselves. 

Yet, the film clearly works on its levels of very specifically pointed satire, but the one aspect of the film that is NEVER given mention is its intense level of black comedy, where many pertinent comparisons to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE or even DR. STRANGELOVE are warranted.  No more are the dark laughs more apparent than in an introductory scene of mayhem in a redneck diner where Mickey and Mallory try to enjoy an afternoon sit-down dinner until harassed by fellow patrons. The pair then  massacres nearly everyone in the place.  When the opening titles are shown, they're drenched in blood.  Yes, we see the duo murdering, stealing, raping, maiming, and making love,  but if you look hard and constructively at the opening scene, Stone makes the tone of the film readily apparent.  In one shot, as Mickey gleefully shoots a waitress, Stone cuts to the bullet’s point of view in slow motion, as eerie opera singing plays in the background.  The bullet then stops in mid-air, pauses for a second, and then strikes its victim. 

It's a moment of inspired absurdity that rivals the scene where Slim Pickens rides the A-bomb down to its target in STRANGELOVE.  It is also a  crucial moment as Stone demonstrates what a gifted and intelligent satirist he is and like all great ones he knows that too much reality lessens the severity and effectiveness of the satire.  When that pesky bullet stops in mid-air, we instantly know that Stone is not delivering reality to us, but a enormously heightened and exaggerated level of reality that plays on levels of chaos and exuberant energy.  He precisely let’s you know that he is making the blackest of black comedies, and spells this out clearly with the dinner massacre. 

The other noteworthy scene occurs early on and it’s a masterful and scathing piece of satire as well.  Mallory revisits when she first met Mickey while she was living at home with her family.   It seems that Mallory was the victim of childhood abuse so what Stone does here is a masterstroke gesture.  He films their meeting at Mallory’s parent's house as a lurid and depressing sitcom, filmed with the same stale and static camera work with the maniacally annoying and contrived laugh and clap track playing in the background, even as the most perverse moments are played.  The point is obvious enough -  the modern media has desensitized us so much that maybe child abuse and molestation are funny and entertaining now.  How sad, and considering where reality TV has been taking us lately, Stone’s media jabs are not too far off base.   Yet, the scene is also integral for further establishing Mallory’s character in the film.  She is a wounded soul as a result of her abuse and, for the rest of the film, is in a consistent three-way love, hate, and fear relationship with sex and violence.  Sex and sexual perversity almost fuels her violent rage, and her low self-regard makes her an easy and accessible partner to Mickey’s already wounded childhood soul as well. 

Stone also attacks specific media conventions, more specifically, those reality-based network investigative report shows like the ones Geraldo Riviera use to frequent.  One is the humorously titled AMERICAN MANIACS and is hosted by Wayne Gale (the terrific Robert Downey Jr.) who seems to be the love child of Geraldo and Robin Leech.  He’s also a crucial thread to Stone’s attack.  His show is as sleazy as it gets, a kind of “junk food for the brain” as he lovingly refers to it as in regards to the viewers.  His show is shot by Stone as one of those moronic and uncaring pseudo-documentaries where Gale comes across more thrilled by the thought of interviewing Mickey and Mallory than of the victims they leave in their path. 

Gale occupies a narrow and shallow world of ratings, money, power, celebrity status and the pull of modern television, which is corrupt at its core.  His character becomes even scarier when, later on in the film, his level of personal transference is so huge that he begins to buy into the rhetoric and philosophies of the insane Mickey.  Since Gale is becoming morally corrupted, and since he is a metaphor for the modern media state, Stone’s message only increases in power and chilling effectiveness. 

Two other characters help to flesh out Stone’s attack.  One is the cop that is hot on the trail of the two killers.  He is played with zeal by Tom Siezmore.  Now, you would think that a police officer would be a figure of peace and civility, but the problem is that he’s sick too.  He’s a scummy and selfish man that also becomes entranced by the world that Mickey and Mallory operate in.  He too is a dark metaphor for society – lacking in morals, ethics, and any other dignified code of conduct.  He becomes so obsessed that, at one point, he even desires to replace Mickey at Mallory’s side. The other character is that of the prison warden played by Tommy Lee Jones.  He is a shady metaphor of the prison system and how its failing and falling apart under his nose.  This, along with Downey and Siezmore's characters, intertwines to complete the arc of Stone’s satiric attacks – it’s the press, cops, prison system, court process and media that are all part of a vicious circle of blame. 

Many have commented on the performances by the leads and the supporters in unflattering ways.  This is especially true of Downey and Jones.  Jones plays his character on overdoses of testosterone mixed with huge quantities of self-medicated speed and caffeine.  It's one of the most strategic and glorious performances of mannered overacting I’ve seen.  Downey, on the same token, has a sort of manic energy and rages into speeches of self-importance.  He too is larger than life.  Their performances fit perfectly into the satire, as Stone’s style is of a heightened reality.  Ironically, it’s the killers themselves that are more fleshed out and play like real people.  Woody Harrelson, in what seems like one of the most unique casting choices in many a moon, has a cool, yet relaxed and fierce tension about him that gels well with the equally troubled Mallory.  The two work as an effective foil to the lunatic world that surrounds them.  In odd and macabre way, they seem more tangible and human than the freaks around them. 

As stated earlier, Stone uses EVERYTHING at his disposal to tell his story.  NATURAL BORN KILLERS just may be the first mixed media  film.  He uses all of the techniques of the cinema, some new and some as old as the artform itself. The film that results is a technical tour de force of imagery and visuals, one that hurdles by you with such a pace that one viewing would simply not adequately suffice.  All of his style is not wicked excess, but is done for a reason.  He is deconstructing the movie and reality itself and the result is a film that is very self-aware.  There is no fourth wall and the effects often drawn attention both to themselves and the message of the film as a whole.  In one inspired scene Mickey and Mallory are in a motel and watch TV.  They are so transfixed by the shows they are watching that they don’t notice what’s happening outside.  What Stone does here is unique, as through the window he shows clips from the violent episodes of the past, from the A bomb, to Hitler, to Stalin, to Vietnam, even to wildlife being destroyed.  This absurdist vision is integral to the film – Mickey and Mallory (like us) as so enamored by TV that they don’t see all of the hellish things that are occurring in the outside world.   

Ten years later, NATURAL BORN KILLERS still methodically kicks you in the face with its forceful and strong political and social satire, and its very chaotic nature drove its controversy more than its violence.  The film, according to Stone, required 150 individual cuts to secure an R rating from the MPAA.  It's not so much that the film is an orgy of blood and gore as it is a film that touched a nerve that most don’t want touched, and the pervasiveness of his message seems more hurtful than the content.   Maybe it was the message that was more shocking than the violence itself, but that’s precisely where people miss the point of the film.  It’s not about blood, but how modern society spoon-feeds us stories of blood and mayhem and how we gobble it up with a childlike enthusiasm.  We are a world polluted more by people wondering more about the serial killers and their twisted mentalities and less about thoughts of the victims and their families.  Stone’s film may be subversive and deals with things some don’t like brought out to the forefront, but it’s a modern masterpiece in how it elicits a reaction from the audience and gets them to think hard about what they're watching. 

You may not like the message or how it’s presented, but there is little room for denying that the message just may just be true.

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