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.

Great Films You Need To See – Hard Eight (1996)

There are few directors who have masterminded such a ceaseless string of ambitious and visually brilliant films as Paul Thomas Anderson.

In a career that has spanned more than 15 years, Anderson has done for the American independent film what Christopher Nolan has for the blockbuster; namely to tear up the rulebook and treat audiences as the savvy, cine-literate group they largely are.

Paul Thomas Anderson's debut Hard Eight

Paul Thomas Anderson’s fantastic debut Hard Eight

As well as directing two of the greatest films of the ’90s – 1997’s seminal Boogie Nights and its Robert Altman-esque follow-up Magnolia in 1999, Anderson has also been responsible for one of this century’s greatest cinematic achievements, his 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood. Let’s also not forget his leftfield 2002 romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love, without doubt Adam Sandler’s finest hour (which I appreciate may come across as damning the film with faint praise – it’s really good).

Big things invariably start with small beginnings and in Anderson’s case this was the little-seen Hard Eight.

Anderson emerged from that post-Tarantino/post-Sex, Lies and Videotape moment in the early ’90s when studios of all sizes were falling over themselves to buy up anything ‘indie’ and repackage it for the mainstream.

In Anderson’s case, his short film Cigarettes and Coffee played at the 1993 Sundance Festival and led to his being invited to hone his burgeoning craft at the Sundance filmmakers’ lab, a sort of Hogwarts for talented young directors. As well as being spotted by Sundance, Anderson had also popped up on the radar at Rysher Entertainment, which financed his first feature.

What Rysher giveth, it took away, however, and after Anderson completed the feature – originally titled Sydney – it took it upon itself to re-edit the film. Anderson kept hold of the working print of his original cut though and, after finding the $200,000 needed to finish the film, a subsequent screening at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and an agreement to rename it, Hard Eight made it onto the big screen. The fact it made only a small dent at the box office turned out to be irrelevant; Hard Eight proved a big hit critically and gave Anderson the calling card he needed to make Boogie Nights the following year.

Hard Eight

John (John C Reilly) is given a leg-up by the enigmatic Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in Hard Eight

Hard Eight follows Sydney, an aging, well-heeled loner who takes the down-at-heels John under his wing. John is penniless and on his way out of Las Vegas after failing to win the $6,000 he needs to pay for his mother’s funeral. Sydney takes pity on the beaten-down John and takes him back to Vegas to mentor him in the way of making money at the casino.

The film picks up two years later with Sydney still the teacher and John his eager pupil. With the absence of a father, a paternal bond has also been formed which comes in handy when a desperate John calls on Sydney to help him deal with a situation involving his new wife – waitress and prostitute Clementine.

The first thing to say about Hard Eight is that it features a fantastic cast, led by the brilliant Philip Baker Hall as Sydney. Anderson apparently wrote the part specifically for Hall, who had been drifting in the wilderness for a number of years and has since gone on to enjoy a successful career in his autumn years. Hall brings real gravitas to a part that requires subtle changes of character. Sydney is a man trying to make amends for a terrible decision in his past in the best way he can, but he’s not to be messed with, as Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) finds to his cost.

Equally good is John C Reilly as John. Reilly may now be best known for his comic roles, but his early career was made up almost exclusively with bit parts or dramatic roles. Hard Eight was as much Reilly’s calling card as it was Anderson’s and he uses his naturally doe-eyed persona to his full advantage in his portrayal of a character trying the best he can but who keeps making mistakes.

Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) and Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in Hard Eight

Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) and Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in Hard Eight

Gwyneth Paltrow also excels as Clementine. It’s a thankless role in some respects; the tart with a heart who falls for John and drags him into a situation they cannot deal with, but Paltrow doesn’t employ the aloofness that has marred some of her other performances here, instead making Clementine a damaged soul magnetised to the equally bruised John.

And let’s not forget Philip Seymour Hoffman in a small but notable cameo as an obnoxious craps player. He’s only on screen for a brief time, but Hoffman doesn’t need long to breathe life into his characters.

The influence of Martin Scorsese is all over the film (something acknowledged by Anderson), with sweeping tracking shots, dazzling visual flourishes and unusual editing style that he embraced even more fully in Boogie Nights. One criticism of the film is the use of music, which can feel a little over-bearing at times. Compared to There Will Be Blood‘s extraordinary soundtrack, Hard Eight feels a little cheap.

Hard Eight is nevertheless a fascinating first salvo in a superb directorial career (his latest, The Master is one of the most anticipated films of 2012) and an intriguing snapshot of the state of American independent cinema at the time (how many directors can boast such a top-notch cast with their first feature?). His is a star that is sure to burn brightly for many years to come.