Natural Born Killers (1994)

Natural Born Killers © Warner Bros.. All Rights Reserved.
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Released:  Friday, August 26, 1994  
Length:  122 minutes
Studio: Warner Bros.
Genre: Drama/Suspense
Rating: Natural Born Killers is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of AmericaUnder 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.


Natural Born Killers © Warner Bros.. All Rights Reserved.

An old script by (Graphic Screen Violence) Tarantino is resurrected by (Damn the Torpedoes) Stone and invested with its own unique subtle nuance and style. Controversial (natch, considering the director and writer) look at the way the media portrays criminals. Harrelson and Lewis are the lovestruck, white-trash serial killers who become tabloid-TV darlings, thanks to a sensationalistic press led by Downey Jr. Stone's dark and manic comment on America's fascination and revulsion with violence is strictly of the love it or leave it variety. Bloodshed galore, dazzling photography, and a dynamite soundtrack (with over 75 selections) add up to sensory overload.

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Natural Born Killers DVD Review

Natural Born Killers may go down as one of the most influential movies that Oliver Stone has made, and since he is a guy who really tries to make influential movies that is probably saying a lot.  The legacy of NATURAL BORK KILLERS, however, is probably not what he would like; it is associated with something like 12 murders (according to Wikipedia), including the Columbine killings; wherein the two shooters would use "NATURAL BORK KILLERS" as a slogan for their upcoming rampage.

To be fair, I doubt, and I think, most people would doubt, that these people would have led the life of Mother Theresa if the movie had never been made.  I suspect that the film, however persuasive and powerful in its imagery and message, is more of an exotic spice for the thoughts of murder, rather than a primary motivating force.  In other words, it really does act more as a slogan than mission statement ... at least that is my guess.

The artifact itself, however, is interesting; I want to talk about it on a couple of levels.  As it is a 1994 release, I would think it is past its spoiler date.  The film concerns two American serial killers -- Mickey and Mallory Knox, who leave their repressive, mundane world. Mallory is shown as sexual abused by her father, Mickey, as a small time criminal, and goes off on a cross-country killing spree where they capture the attention of the media and the adoration of fans.

They really they are killers.  They do not just kill the guilty or the obnoxious or the rude – they will kill anyone who even mildly upsets them or just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They are passionately in love; but in a kind of infantile and fixated way -- it is intensely important to Mickey that Mallory wear the snake ring he gave her as a wedding band.  They have some philosophy, but it really is the kind of thing we see from someone who has clearly never read a philosophy book in their life.

The movie transitions after they get captured in a jail house scene where they are interviewed by a reporter. The reporter is a TV 'tabloid-reporter.'  During the interview, a prison riot starts, and Mickey and Mallory manage to break out.  They end the movie having escaped and say that they are not going to kill anyone else (although they said that before, and they do "one last killing" of the TV reporter who has switched sides to 'join them).

The movie shows authority figures as damaged as the characters themselves.  The cop who chases them is also a killer (he strangles a hooker to get his groove on to go after them; and wants to have sex with Mallory in prison.  The prison warden is an absolute over-the-top hard-ass.  The media, as complicit as they can be, is bringing the story to the worldwide fan audience.

So what is interesting about that?  Well, I am going to talk about both the medium (how it is made) and the message (what it says).  As this is the director's cut DVD, I will also talk about the extras and how they impact the movie as a product.

Although it is shot in a short 56 days, it took years of editing.  The movie uses multiple formats of film from video and 8mm to crystal-clear 35mm.  It goes into black and white; some made artificially grainy.  It employs strange lighting -- most notoriously a luminous green that is meant to represent sickness.  For the iconic scene in the Drug Zone pharmacy, the crew created a football-field sized utterly empty drug store-filled with thousands of green lights; it wasn't just a post-production effect.

Backgrounds show images of decay or predation.  In some cases those were added after the fact.  In other cases, they were really projected over the scene.  This is all done to make the film a phantasmagoric experience, and to give us insight into the killer's minds.  The violence is not meant to be realistic (the film underscores this with periodic cuts to lurid cartoon images that serve to amplify the live action); however, it is absolutely no less bloody for it.

One image, a headless man in a bloody shirt getting out of a chair, came to Oliver Stone in a dream.  Others -- animals eating each other, fruit decaying, wild horses shot in negative images thundering across a plane, are selected seemingly at random for their primalness.  The home-life scenes with Rodney Dangerfield, looking decrepit in a food-stained shirt, are done as a TV sit-com with video-bright colors, an "I Love Mallory" image overlay, and a laugh-track as he gropes her.  It is absolutely disturbing.

I wish Stone had said more about his intentions behind this approach than he did. He did say that he told the designers to "cut loose", and that "green was a symbol of sickness". I think it goes further than that; and to be fair, he says a lot about individual cuts -- but rarely about the reasoning behind the entirety of the movie's rather unique look and feel.  I think what he was trying to do was capture a frantic sense of chaos.  He understands that the characters are mentally ill in order to do those things, and he works to capture it on film as a kind of 'literal picture'.

On this level -- the medium level -- Natural Born Killers is an absolute success.  It is powerful, disturbing, and almost intimate in a way that nothing else I can think of even approaches.  If it falls down is the message.

Stone says (during his commentary) that its society creates Mickey and Mallory.  He feels the damaged institutions he portrays (the law, the criminal justice system, and parenthood) all play into this.  He especially singles out the media for being a key responsible party.  Indeed, by patterning the jail-house interview of Mickey after Geraldo Rivera's real-life interview with Charles Manson, he might seem like he has got a point.

Anti-heroes are dealt with in a number of ways by fiction.  The most honest is to admit that we (some of us) tend to have a certain soft spot for the outlaw.  There is something romantic about a couple, deeply in love, who plays by no one's rules, but their own and brings the entire fury of "city hall" (whom you are not supposed to be able to fight) down on them.  This is the Thelma and Louise formula; and many others.

However, when these anti-heroes cross the 'Moral Event Horizon' and do things we can no longer condone, we no longer like them.  If a movie wants to be edgy and flirt with that moral event horizon, it needs to do something special.  It needs to somehow soften the blow.  There are a few unforgivable sins that movie actors can commit (murder is the least, rape is up there, and killing a child is probably at the top).  Stone has his duo kill, and at least once, rape a helpless victim.  They don't torture...exactly...but they seem to take a sadistic glee in the terror of their victims -- playing eenie-meenie-miney-moe to see who will get shot in the opening scene.

In order to maintain sympathy at this point, there are a few options. The first is to have only the anti-hero kill bad guys.  This softened Hannibal Lecter to the point of ridiculousness by the third movie.  It works for Showtime's Dexter (a serial killer who only kills other serial killers) because no matter how unbelievable it may be, it is right out in front.  Since Mickey and Mallory kill all kinds of people who are all at least reasonably innocent; the guy in the Drug Zone's crime might be possibly fat, so Stone can't do this.

Instead he seems to amp-up the sickness of society.  Everyone is a voyeur.  No one wants to get killed, but everyone wants to see a good killing.  We've all got it coming.  He underscores this by having the lawmen be pretty much objectively as bad as the criminals.  With the commentary, he gives us and we can see in the end, that he holds them responsible for the killing spree.

It seems to be this kind of thinking that justifies Mickey and Mallory's escape at the end; they are shown in a fantastical RV with two small kids and a third on the way. He says in the director's commentary that they were telling the truth about one-last-killing; they had reformed when they were caught and apparently had moved on to a higher-order of thinking.  He says they had to kill the tabloid-TV reporter because they had to murder the media. The guy would never have stopped chasing them.

Structurally, I felt this was inconsistent. Now that I have seen the Director's Cut, I think I can say why.

In the beginning diner dinner scene, there is a man who disappears.  He is reading a newspaper with the number 666 on it.  The guy is played by Arliss Howard, and he also shows up in the prison scene in the end to lead them out.  Stone describes him as a Guardian Angel.  In the alternate ending, he is in the car with them as they escape.  He talks about "coming through fire" and wants to have sex with Mallory. When Mickey objects and Mallory threatens to shoot him (again, bathed in green light indicating sickness), he isn't that scared.

After Mallory puts her gun down, the 'Guardian Angel' shoots them both.  Go to black.

It seems impossible that Stone would be missing this, but his continuously describing this guy as a Guardian Angel seems catastrophically inconsistent.  Clearly this guy is at best a "guardian demon" and probably just a demonic character somehow inserted into the film for whatever reason; it isn't explained anywhere.  I don't think Stone honestly holds the media responsible for the actions of his characters – he is too smart for that and knows better.  He certainly does vilify the media (and the criminal justice system -- and everything else he can get his hands on; no one but the Indian Shaman who Mickey kills gets away clean.  It is just his take that there is any cycle of responsibility that can elevate his characters feels false (all the more-so because after accidentally killing the Shaman -- an act which supposedly reforms them, they kill the pharmacy keeper for no reason whatsoever and just to make sure that their legacy of killing people isn't tarnished.

I think that he probably intended to take it to the media, the tabloid media, anyway, which he clearly has no love for; but made a somewhat more honest movie -- a movie that even in the director's commentary, I don't think he really cops to.

That is an achievement -- even if I am not really sure of what kind.

The set comes with the movie disk and the extras disk. The extras have several cut scenes (the trial scene and extended interview with Stephen Wright as a psychologist are especially worth watching).  There are two documentaries: one about the chaos of making the movie, and one about the thinking behind it (anti-sensationalist media).  There is a theatrical trailer that we do not know if anyone watches, and the alternate ending scene (which any NATURAL BORK KILLERS aficionado should see). Finally, there is an Oliver Stone / Charlie Rose interview which was basically Stone talking up the movie and Rose asking leading questions.


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Natural Born Killers images © Warner Bros.. All Rights Reserved.

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