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.

Review – Lincoln

There’s a moment at the start of Lincoln when you fear Steven Spielberg isn’t going to be able to resist going all Amistad on us and clubbing you over the head with the film’s message.

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln

The scene is thus: following a brief prologue of Civil War carnage involving black and white soldiers (proving that everyone is equal on the battlefield), a black union soldier respectfully gibes the President about inequality. Two white unionists approach separately and in worshipful tones quote Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (“Four score and seven years ago…”) back to him, but stumble over the final words, leaving it to the African-American trooper to complete the recital before rejoining his company.

On the face of it, this opening four minutes or so brings to mind the sort of heavy-handed approach Spielberg has so often been guilty of in his historical epics. Yet, delve a little deeper and it becomes apparent Tony Kushner’s script and Spielberg’s direction are very cleverly revealing two contrasting perceptions of Lincoln; on one side is the saintly Honest Abe figure common to school textbooks, on the other the crafty politician with a gift for oratory who nevertheless knows that deeds, not words are what’s needed.

Lincoln focuses tightly on the final four months of the Republican president’s life, centring on the politicking and increasingly frantic horse-trading that took place in the darkened corridors of power in early 1865 to secure passage through the House of Representatives of the crucial 13th Amendment to the US Constitution to formally abolish slavery.

Lincoln

Honest Abe (Daniel Day-Lewis) mournfully surveys the battlefield in Lincoln

With the Civil War in its final death throes, time is of the essence for Lincoln, who is worried his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation decreeing that all slaves be freed will be thrown out by the courts once the war is over and the 13th Amendment defeated by the returning slave states of the south. Warned not to do it by those closest to him for fear of tarnishing his revered reputation, the President realises the opportunity could be lost and leans heavily on his colleagues to help him get the vote through.

Needing a two-thirds majority in the House, Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward (David Straithairn) send lobbyists William Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) out to procure the crucial votes of on-the-fence Democrats by any means necessary.

Tommy Lee Jones as fiery Republican Congessional leader Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln

Tommy Lee Jones as fiery Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln

Three distinct threads run through the film – the war of words in the House between Democrats and Republican congressmen enjoying the sound of their own voice, the behind-the-scenes machinations, and the strain on Lincoln’s marriage to First Lady Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) – and it’s to Spielberg’s great credit that we never lose focus of any of them.

Kushner’s witty script is necessarily talky, and it pays not to lose attention, but the enormity of the stakes is always clear and the dialogue positively crackles in the hands of probably the greatest cast assembled for any Spielberg film to date.

Tommy Lee Jones, in his best role for years, has a ball as Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, a radical anti-slavery advocate who can’t stop himself insulting Democratic leaders for sport, but knows when to keep his cards close to his chest when the need arises.

There’s a levity to the efforts of the lobbyists to curry the Democrats’ favour, although the grave seriousness of their task is not lost, and the vote itself is expertly handled by Spielberg, who ratchets up the tension like the old pro he is.

Daniel Day Lewis as Honest Abe in Lincoln

Daniel Day Lewis as Honest Abe in Lincoln

The ideologically led politics of Lincoln serves as a timely parallel to the entrenched state of today’s American party political system where petty in-fighting and belligerence can often push progress to the sidelines.

It seems appropriate that America’s most beloved President is played by arguably today’s greatest living actor and Daniel Day-Lewis is stupendous in the title role. He plays Lincoln as a kindly uncle who chooses to win people over with an amusing anecdote or a subtle observation and, ever the politician, engages in a lot of hand holding.

First Lady Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) in Lincoln

First Lady Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) in Lincoln

Day-Lewis makes it look effortless, finding a pause here or a change of tone there to give what will probably become the definitive take on this most adored of presidents. It’s a masterclass in the power of knowing when to underplay a role, to the extent that when some of the cast look in awe of the President you wonder whether it’s actually Day-Lewis they are marvelling at.

We see a more vulnerable Lincoln when he shares private moments with Mary, who has fallen apart following the death of their son and begs her husband to stop their other sibling Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from joining the war effort. Their pained arguments are powerfully wrought, and Field is excellent as a figure who, like Abe, must compartmentalise personal grief for the good of the country.

Despite this being Spielberg’s most mature and discliplined work to date, he still can’t help himself on occasion, whether it be the rather obvious symbolism of a ticking clock and Lincoln glancing at his watch to show how time is running out, or the saccharine moment when the President walks to a window bathed in light upon hearing the vote has been passed.

Bringing to life a significant moment in the turbulent history of the world’s only superpower, who’d have thought a film where little happens for long periods could be this engrossing?