In Retrospect – Natural Born Killers (1994)

It’s been almost 20 years since Oliver Stone’s outrageously provocative indictment of our obsession with media-fed celebrity and violence grabbed its own set of headlines, but if anything it’s become even more prescient.

As fearless as it is bombastic and problematic, it's unlikely we'll see the like of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers again

As fearless as it is bombastic and problematic, it’s unlikely we’ll see the like of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers again

With each new school shooting, massacre and serial killer, America’s news networks have sunk to new depths and served up opinions and conjecture as ‘factual’ prime time entertainment to a public drawn to the grisly details like a moth to a flame.

Cinema has long-held a fascination with our darker side, from such classics as Badlands (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Funny Games (1997) to schlock horror like the recent run of torture porn flicks.

Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) on their media-fuelled rampage in Natural Born Killers

Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) on their media-fuelled rampage in Natural Born Killers

Oliver Stone, one of America’s most polarising directors, has long explored humanity’s black heart and loss of innocence in the likes of Platoon, JFK and the under-appreciated Talk Radio, so it came as no surprise when it emerged he was making his most controversial film to date in Natural Born Killers.

Originally written by a pre-Reservoir Dogs Quentin Tarantino, Stone dramatically altered the tone of the script from popcorn action to a polemic attacking what he saw as the insidious and cynical devolution of the media from a fair and balanced news provider to a ratings-chasing entertainer that glorifies the violence it purports to condemn.

The shizer hits the fan fortabloid TV journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr) in Natural Born Killers

The shizer hits the fan for tabloid TV journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr) in Natural Born Killers

Drawn together by a common desire and abusive childhoods, lovers Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) hit the road and embark on a frenzied killing spree that captivates the sensation-hungry media machine, encapsulated by bloodthirsty tabloid journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr) and his rabid TV show American Maniacs (which he describes as “junk food for the brain” for “those dim wits out there in zombieland”). Regarded as “the best thing to happen to mass murder since Manson” by his deluded fans, Mickey and Mallory’s notoriety only increases with each new massacre and explodes after they’re captured and locked up in prison, run by Warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones).

If you thought JFK was a cinematic smorgasbord, Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson give us one of the most hyperactive and kaleidoscopic movie experiences ever committed to celluloid. Switching frenetically between colour, black and white, video, Super 8, CCTV, slow motion, projection, red lens, green lens and animation, it’s nothing if not eye-popping.

Not the thing you want to be staring at in Natural Born Killers

Not the thing you want to be staring at in Natural Born Killers

The late Roger Ebert said of the film: “Seeing this movie once is not enough. The first time is for the visceral experience, the second time is for the meaning.” Re-watching Natural Born Killers, I was able to get past the “visceral experience” and realised that Stone was trying to portray events through Mickey and Mallory’s crazy perspective. When we see the animated Mickey looking the cool hero, for instance, it’s how he sees himself.

Stone depicts his central pairing as an unstoppable force of nature relentlessly careering down “the road to hell”. When Mickey escapes prison for the first time, he jumps on a horse and symbolically rides towards a tornado. Likewise, they seem to float above those seeking to drag them down to the gutter, especially the parasitic Gale who sees Mickey and Mallory as his ticket to the big time. When Mickey poetically announces that “only love can kill the demon” during a live interview, Gale cheapens the moment by going to commercial, where an ad for Coke duly pops up.

Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woodly Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), “the best thing to happen to mass murder since Manson”, in Natural Born Killers

Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), “the best thing to happen to mass murder since Manson”, in Natural Born Killers

Images of sex and violence are projected in the background and dominate the airwaves, including footage of Scarface (an odd choice considering Stone wrote the screenplay). Also, Mickey and Mallory each have ying and yang tattoos to show their “extreme light and dark” sides, but they could just as easily represent the interdependence between their killing spree and the media’s insatiable blood lust.

However, for a film seeking to throw a cautionary spotlight on where we are and where we’re heading, Stone undermines his message in the way he depicts the moments of violence. Within the first five minutes, we’re shown a highly stylised scene of brutality visited upon the staff and customers of a diner, including an arresting tracking shot of a bullet fired from Mickey’s gun that dramatically stops in mid-flight before ending up in a cook’s head, and another tracking shot of a knife sent spinning slow motion through a window and into its victim. Crudely, Stone has the rednecks leer and grab at Mallory as she dances next to a jukebox, suggesting they’re asking for it.

Warden Swight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) loses it in Natural Born Killers

Warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) loses it in Natural Born Killers

Stone would argue he’s seeking to project such violent scenes through the prism of satire, but when every cinematic trick in the book is adopted it’s difficult not to conclude he’s having his cake and eating it.

The excellent Harrelson and Lewis walk a fine line between being frightening, charming and sympathetic, while the manically over-the-top Jones and Downey Jr are deliciously sleazy and Arliss Howard’s angel of death on Mickey and Mallory’s shoulders is all the more unnerving for how underplayed it is.

As fearless as it is bombastic and problematic, it’s unlikely we’ll see the like of Natural Born Killers again, while for all his faults we need more directors like Oliver Stone to make us think, however unsubtle the message might be.

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19 comments

  1. Frame Rates · May 22, 2013

    This movie will stick in my mind as being one of the first times I heard the ‘c’ word in a film. Sometimes Stone annoys me with his overt symbolism and social commentary, but this is one of my favourites regardless of the (sometimes confused) message he is delivering. Fantastic piece.

    • Three Rows Back · May 22, 2013

      Thanks very much for the kind words. I have a lot of time for Stone and enjoy NBK; it’s just he can’t help battering you over the head with his message. It makes you think though, which is more than can be said for most films.

  2. ckckred · May 22, 2013

    The message is heavy handed but I think it’s an excellent film. I used to really despise this movie until I saw it again a couple of months ago. Not the easiest watch, but very rewarding. Nice review.

  3. filmhipster · May 22, 2013

    Excellent article on one of Stone’s best work. I really think Ebert nailed it on the head there when he says you need to see it twice.

    • Three Rows Back · May 22, 2013

      Appreciate that. Ebert’s rarely been wrong I’ve found, we’ll all miss his work.

  4. Dan Heaton · May 22, 2013

    Stone is such a tricky filmmaker because I admire his fearless approach to directing yet then he often treads into murky territory. You bring up a good point that he’s satirizing our obsession with violence yet clearly reveling in showing it. I think he’s an important filmmaker that can do great work, and Natural Born Killers is a film that should be seen. However, it’s a mixed bag for me, especially once you get past the “visceral” first viewing described by Ebert.

    • Three Rows Back · May 22, 2013

      I agree with you 100%. He’s one of my favourite directors and JFK is one of my favourite films. It’s a shame he hasn’t made anything of great substance for a long time (not including his excellent TV series The Untold History of the United States).

      • Dan Heaton · May 23, 2013

        I’m still amazed that JFK doesn’t receive more acclaim. I didn’t catch up with it until about five years ago, and I was blown away. It’s one of the most impressive films of the past few decades. Unfortunately, his recent output hasn’t been great. I haven’t seen that TV series, but it sounds very interesting.

  5. georginaguthrie · May 22, 2013

    Excellent review, and a really interesting post. I was ambivalent about this film when I first saw, I must give it a second viewing.

    • Three Rows Back · May 22, 2013

      Thanks! I’d not seen it since it was first in cinemas so was intrigued to see how/if it had held up. Still a very interesting movie experience.

      • georginaguthrie · May 22, 2013

        Your post has certainly rekindled my interest in it – very well written.

      • Three Rows Back · May 22, 2013

        You’re too kind! 🙂

  6. Tyson Carter · May 23, 2013

    I do love this movie!! Great write up dude 🙂

    • Three Rows Back · May 23, 2013

      Thanks as always my friend! I’ll have to see what’s left on your IMDb Top 250 and claim something!

      • Tyson Carter · May 23, 2013

        For sure, whenever you fancy something just drop me an email 🙂

  7. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · May 23, 2013

    Excellent piece. Big fan of this film. Lewis and Harrelson just work so well together in it.

    • Three Rows Back · May 23, 2013

      Always appreciate the feedback buddy. They’ve got a fantastic chemistry that should be the real centre of the movie, not Stone’s incessant social satire.

  8. cindybruchman · May 29, 2013

    I forgot about Downey’s role in the film. I think Ebert’s right, and I need to watch it again. Nice post!

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