Title: Natural Born Killers (1994)
Director: Oliver Stone
Story by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Rodney Dangerfield, Everett Quinton, Jared Harris, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Edie McClurg, Russell Means, Lanny Flaherty, O-Lan Jones, Robert Downey Jr., Richard Lineback, Kirk Baltz, Ed White, Terrylene, Maria Pitillo, Josh Richman, Tommy Lee Jones, Steven Wright, and many many more.
The first time I saw, “Natural Born Killers” was around 2007, at the urging of my now-ex boyfriend. It was a shock to the system; as I watched I kept wondering why does he want me to watch this ultra-violent spectacle? You may laugh when I say the film is a sleeper, as I did anything but sleep while watching it; but as time passed, and after a few more viewings, the realization of what a brilliant masterpiece, “Natural Born Killers” is dawned on me and what a scathing commentary it is on the commodification of violence.
The skeleton of the story revolves around two young people, Mickey (played by Harrelson) and Mallory (played by Lewis.) We learn through flashbacks that both were born and raised in neglectful, abusive, and exploitive families (Rodney Dangerfield is truly unforgettable as Mallory’s father — in his only dramatic role ever!) After a shocker opening, the story takes us back to when Mickey, who works at a local butcher shop, and Mallory, who is your typical teen-ager rebelling against the authority in small-town USA, meet as Mickey delivers a meat order to the family. It’s love at first sight for the two damaged psyches. One thing leads to another, and soon the two are on a cross-country killing spree.
But that’s only the ribcage on the corpus of the film. One long and grasping arm is made up of community law enforcement officers that are doing their best to capture the two blood-spilling, traveling renegades. Mickey & Mallory’s MO is to leave at least one person alive at each scene to tell the story of what happened which does help the cops; yet they remain tantalizingly out of reach for quite awhile. Another (misshapen) arm, also from law enforcement, is epitomized in Detective Jack Scagnetti (played with great, sick relish, by Sizemore,) who is not only an active duty detective but is a famous crime novel writer who wants to catch the two for his own psychopathic reasons. The two remaining limbs are the prison system, where one leg represents the maltreated-when-they’re-not-being-forgotten ordinary inmates; and the other, the special favors, special treatment leg that walks the extra mile for celebrity inmates. The particularly revulsive Warden Dwight McClusky (played with nauseating delight by Tommy Lee Jones) runs the prison Mickey and Mallory are sent to to serve out their long sentences. Mickey and Mallory then act as catalytic matches to the powderkeg of the place.
l.-r.: Tommy Lee Jones, Pruitt Taylor Vince (in back), Tom Sizemore, and Everett Quinton
Serving as the head of this Frankenstein monster is…. the media! At the helm, with a charming Aussie accent (guessing it’s a dig at Rupert Murdoch) is the one and only Wayne Gale (played with consummate skill by Downey Jr.,) a media journalist styled after Geraldo Rivera and others of his ilk. Wayne and the media machine he rides floats on a lurid high as they follow the duo from crime scene to crime scene, making sure to build them into cult heroes instead of the vicious killers they are. The interview scenes of random people in the crowds have the eerie sheepiness of those who buy into the mass media hype we see ever-more with the receiver, transmitter, and meme-spreader of our media devices today.
The irony of the title, that these two were just born bad, and by extension, being born bad means you do bad things and prisons are built to house bad people, is one that I hope is not lost on the viewer. Some lawsuits have blamed the movie for inciting viewers to commit violence, similar to the “twinkie defense” or blaming the ax manufacturer for what Lizzie Borden did. Would these two have killed as many without their handguns? Probably, just more creatively.
Every single person involved in the making of the film deserves kudos for being committed to the project, determined to make Oliver Stone’s (and Tarantino’s story) as exceptional and iconic as it is. Stone’s vision and leadership served to inspire the crew to see that vision realized.
Director’s Cut and Special Features
Along with the director’s cut film disk was a special features disk that included interviews with Oliver Stone and many of the stars. I didn’t write which person said these things, but it I found them very enlightening in how those involved viewed the work.
“News for profit was the beginning of the end” of news integrity.
“Oliver’s ‘Fuck You’ to the mainstream media.”
“Chaos was the star of the show.”
“Natural Born Killers is a satire, defined as a distortion and exaggeration of reality to make a point.”
“The interview in the prison with Mickey and Gayle was styled after Geraldo Rivera’s interview with Charles Manson.”
Other things talked about were the experimental nature of how the movie was cut and how much editing it took to put it together with all of the weird and sometimes surreal splices that are seen throughout. When the censors walked through it they demanded 155 cuts from it, all of which were restored in the director’s cut.
Just like the movie, the soundtrack is an avant-garde work of art. Lifted from wikipedia: “Natural Born Killers: A Soundtrack for an Oliver Stone Film” is the soundtrack to the film Natural Born Killers, produced by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Reznor reportedly produced the soundtrack using a portable Pro Tools in his hotel room while on his band’s Self Destruct Tour. On his approach to compiling the soundtrack, Reznor told MTV: “I suggested to Oliver [Stone] to try to turn the soundtrack into a collage-of-sound, kind of the way the movie used music: make edits, add dialog, and make it something interesting, rather than a bunch of previously released music.” Some songs were written especially for the film or soundtrack, such as “Burn” by Nine Inch Nails. “I took a finished movie,” Reznor recalled, “and tried to make something that would be a cool souvenir from it.”
What I liked about, “Natural Born Killers” was everything: from Stone’s vision; to casting; to experimental filming techniques with layered cuts; to its exaggeration to make a point; to the sheer beauty in some scenes (I loved the bridge scene!;) to the mysticism in others; to the soundtrack; to the exceptional depiction of horror and trauma that visit too many humans and the permanent maiming and twisting effects of them. I like how it rubs the viewer’s face in the offal of their morbid interest in the seedy underbelly of human nature. Think about how many crime books, movies and television series have been made and continue to be made. I include myself in the audience of consumers; I’m not sure what it says about me, but I have a feeling it’s nothing good.
What I didn’t like about it isn’t about the movie itself but the negative press it got. Watching the special features, it hurt to see Stone being put in the hot seat by smirk-wearing interviewers as he tried to explain his vision to them. Talk about life imitating art!
Lessons I learned from the film. Crime is a huge industry in America (I lied. I already knew that.) Turning crime into media is a very profitable business model. (I knew that also.)
There’s a large number of trivia bits at imdb.com for the movie.
In Variety Magazine’s August 25, 2019, issue there’s an excellent essay, “Oliver Stone’s ‘Natural Born Killers’ Is, More than Ever, the Spectacle of Our Time: Yet it has never gained true respectability” by Owen Gleiberman. You can find it here.
RATING SYSTEM: out of 1 (worst) and 10 (best) = 10
My review was originally posted earlier at hanspostcards.