NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)

Two victims of traumatised childhoods become lovers and psychopathic serial murderers irresponsibly glorified by the mass media.
4 out of 5 stars

The 1990s was the decade that set things up for the ‘YouTube generation’. MTV was at its height of popularity and music videos aesthetics were influencing action cinema. Generation X was bleak and rejected the ideals of their ‘hippy’ parents. More notably, the media had revamped its image by catapulting serial killers and images of mass murder into households. The world changed after the murder trial of athlete-turned-actor O.J Simpson; everything from celebrity gossip to murder stories seeped into television programming to boost ratings. Now broadcasting interviews with Charles Manson and with the release of Belgian mockumentary Man Bites Dog (1992), America’s morbid fascination with serial killers was on the rise…

Chaos and creativity work hand in hand. If you lose one percent of chaos, you lose one percent of creativity. The creative mind of Academy Award-winning director Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers excited and traumatised his audience. The tale of two young lovers caught in a typhoon of chaos during a murderous rampage caused a wave of controversy. It drew audiences in with its graphic violence and pulse-quickening music, yet the underlining theme was much deeper than exposing people to chaotic action movie filled with guns, blood, and mayhem.

Mallory (Juliette Lewis) is the abused teenage daughter of the ‘family from hell’. Mickey (Woody Harrelson) is the butcher’s boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Their love is instant and inevitable, even if it means leaving a bloody trail of bodies across New Mexico. Hot on their trail is tabloid hack Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.) and corrupt cop Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore). As the young lovers become global superstars through their misdeeds, their notoriety is only inflamed by their eventual incarceration by prison warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones).

Throughout all of this absurdity, Stone managed to gather an electric cast, all of whom put a great deal of effort into their colourful performances. Harrelson (TV’s Cheers) and Lewis (Kalifornia) are the lovers who also happen to slaughter anyone who gets in their way. Like a Generation X update of Bonnie & Clyde, they fit together like two jigsaw pieces. Their romance is genuine but, more importantly, their rage is believable.

Both those performances walk a fine line between frightening, charming, and in certain scenes sympathetic. Harrelson is unnervingly cool and collected, whereas Lewis is like a ticking time-bomb. The latter had been nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Cape Fear (1992), and it was wonderful to see her star shine brighter here. Lewis also seems a bit too close to the edge of outright insanity, but she pulls it off convincingly. Reportedly, in a scene where she shoves Sizemore’s face into a wall, she used such force she actually broke his nose!

In a solid supporting performance, the aforementioned Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan) plays perverted detective Scagnetti. In a film filled to the brim with irredeemable folk, he’s possibly one of the most unpleasant dirty cops to ever grace the screen. Battling with his own demons, the character is a borderline nutjob. Infatuated with the psychology of the notorious criminals, he won’t stop until they’re both in captivity. In one scene he kills a prostitute before screaming “Mickey and Mallory, I’m coming to get you.” In retrospect, knowing his preparation for the role makes his character even more sinister. As stated in his autobiography, between takes Sizemore would take cocaine to fuel his performance and give it the psychotic energy required.

Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive) as prison warden McClusky is sensational. After pairing with Stone in his previous movie JFK (1991), here Jones is loud, crazy, and hams it up to an almost comical degree. His barrage of cartoonish outbursts, mutton chop sideburns, and Texan twang light up each scene like a hardboiled Yosemite Sam. The walking introduction sequence between Scagnetti and McClusky is perfectly crafted: the script, editing, and his eccentric performance work together perfectly.

But it’s Robert Downey Jr. (Weird Science) who steals the show, donning an OTT Australian brogue as Wayne Gale—a craze reporter who’ll catapult the psychotic killers to cult status with his popular intense TV show American Maniacs. Similar to Americas Most Wanted, he reports on the despicable criminals as they gallivant across state leaving a trail of bodies and destruction. Embodying the central parody of the film, he’s narcissistic and egotistical yet great fun to watch. In one scene, he brags on camera “I saw it all go down at Grenada” before looking off-camera to read the crowds reactions, then later broadcasts a live in-prison interview with Mickey on Super Bowl Sunday. It’s arguable that Stone uses the character as satire to create laughs whilst demonising media hypocrisy. Even placing a Coca-Cola advertisement midway through a report to highlight the priority of commercialism. His story arc resembles one outrageous TV show, and it’s utterly captivating.

From the outset, Stone sets up the mood that’ll take priority over the traditional narrative formula: a montage of animals struggling to survive while Leonard Cohen’s classic “Waiting for the Miracle” plays over (subliminally reflecting modern America’s “survival of the fittest” society), before entering a traditional roadside diner. We then see a television rapidly changing channels, switching from American series Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963), 77 Sunset Strip (1958-1964), to the resignation speech of President Richard Nixon, against a projection of a horror movie.

This short sequence serves as a representation of the dark evolution of US culture during the late-20th-century. The director previously meshed political and personal themes with his features Platoon (1986) and Heaven on Earth (1993), which were both told from the perspective of victims of the Vietnam War. Natural Born Killers is the director’s interpretation of the phrase ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ where our characters, but most importantly, US culture is inevitably heading.

However, for a movie that’s seeking to throw a cautionary spotlight on the direction of western civilisation, Stone is hypocritical with his message through the way he depicts the violence. In the same sequence, we’re shown highly stylised scenes of brutality towards the staff and customers of the diner. A tracking shot of a bullet fired from Mickey’s gun dramatically stops in mid-air before ending up in a cooks head. Another tracking shot of a knife being thrown, spinning in slow motion through the air, smashes through a window and into victim’s back. The director is projecting such violent scenes through the scope of satire and you can’t help but go along with it.

This is also prominent during the introduction of Mallory’s history. Through a sitcom entitled I Love Mallory (a playful twist on 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy), a laugh track is played over the images of Mallory’s father (Rodney Dangerfield) touching her inappropriately and insinuating incest. This is Stone’s clever and disturbing play on violence in entertainment, but also a chilling representation of domestic violence. Mickey and Mallory represent the generation raised on such images. The way society is becoming desensitised to the continuous stream of uneasy, sickening images on our television screens and within the media is the point Stone is trying to make.

Delving into similar territory to A Clockwork Orange (1971), after performing such grotesque violence on the community he’s later captured for psychological testing. The first half of Natural Born Killers narrative presents Mickey and Mallory on their rampage… whereas the second half takes part as the two characters are incarcerated. They also receive similar testing and visits from psychologists that result in bloodshed to Clockwork, ending in a prison break in the final act.

The prison break sequence comes across as the strongest assertion that the glorification of violence within the media is detrimental to society. Everyone involved in a TV hostage situation pays the price. An interview with Mickey, the idolised murderer, is scheduled to air live directly after the Super Bowl. At the time, the closest thing to reality TV was news and sports. The Super Bowl is the director’s representation of how interwoven reality and violence are in the media. Mickey and Mallory fight their way out of the prison alongside the self-absorbed reporter Wayne Gale, leaving a high body count in their wake. The outcome of two homicidal lovers living ‘happily ever after’ really makes one question how the world is governed today!

During production, the infamous O.J Simpson trial and Rodney King case were receiving an incredible amount of media attention. The director believed that the outcome was due to the overdramatised manner of the media. References such as the mass hysteria outside the courthouse reflect that of O.J as he was attending his murder trial. Further, Mickey is viciously attacked outside a drug store. After being incapacitated, a mass of cops kick and punch him as the camera pulls back. Anyone familiar with the Rodney King case will instantly recognise the similarities. Like many good storytellers, Stone uses Natural Born Killers as an opportunity to hold a mirror up to the wrongdoings within modern-day media.

Natural Born Killers is an avalanche of information; fast and scattershot. Many of Stone’s previous movies, especially The Doors (1991), contains the pacing and sped-up sensation the director is renowned for. It evokes a feeling that life is passing by and if you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss it. Helped by the cinematography of Robert Richardson, Natural Born Killers gives us one of the most hyperactive and kaleidoscopic movie experiences of the decade.

The pop-culture mentality of the decade was to be ‘in your face’ and as extreme as possible. Sex, violence, editing, colours, acting, dutch angles… it was all cranked up to 11. Although not to everyone’s liking, of course, as the visuals can be overwhelming and create some degree of motion sickness. However, Richardson’s frenetical switching between colour, monochrome, animation, and 16mm film, is nothing but eye-popping. Perhaps a warped interpretation of a criminal’s psyche. Watching it, you can see the cinematographer’s fingerprints on later films he shot, such as Kill Bill: Vol.1 (2003). If Mickey and Mallory were breaking the rules of society, it’s easy to argue that Stone and Richardson stood right there alongside them breaking the rules of cinema.

The screenplay was originally developed by Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood), partly inspired by Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and loosely based on infamous Nebraskan murderers Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate. After his successful directorial debut Reservoir Dogs (1992) and his script for True Romance (1993) getting made by Tony Scott, Tarantino was yet to become a household name. His name and style of filmmaking were only just starting to create a buzz in Hollywood. When his name was attached to Natural Born Killers his small cult following were thrilled at the prospect of a new Tarantino movie, but by the time Natural Born Killers was released in 1994, it wasn’t the movie Tarantino envisioned.

Tarantino wanted a film-within-a-film experience, written by True Romance’s Clarence Worley (Christian Slater). After five rewrites by three separate writers (including Stone himself), the screenplay had been radically altered and Tarantino only received a ‘Story By’ credit. Since then, he’s publicly attacked Stone, saying “the biggest problem is that obviousness cancels out his energy and his energy pumps up his obviousness.” And more to the point, “I hate that fucking movie.”

However, several of his plot points were retained in the shooting script, such as the Jack Scagnetti character briefly mentioned in Reservoir Dogs. The surf-rock tracks Tarantino would eventually make a defining part of his aesthetic also feature, along with an opening scene in a diner that has similarities to one in Pulp Fiction (1994). There are ghostly echoes of his imprints, hinting at a stranger and more nuanced version of what Natural Born Killers became.

Unlike Pulp Fiction, which was released the same year and made Tarantino’s name in Hollywood, Natural Born Killers created an outrage in large public sectors. After Stone reported made over 150 cuts to appease the BBFC, it still gained a lot of criticism for the brutal violence being portrayed. It was blamed for causing so-called “copycat killings” in the ’90s, like several tragic High School massacres including the 1999 Columbine Shootings.

I’d argue that condemning any form of media as the root cause of violence is ridiculous. Emotional behaviours such as aggression, remorse, and empathy, are something we learn from a young age. Expressing that behaviour is due to a person’s environment and upbringing. Knee-jerk reactions of blaming movies, video games, or music, is because society doesn’t understand what provokes or explains such violence. Blaming an artform for such atrocities is ignorant and society is abrogating its responsibility to truly determine the root cause.

Sex and drugs are nothing without rock n’ roll. Luckily for Stone, the ’90s marked an evolution in music. Features such as Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992) began to push the boundaries of music in film. It was the beginning of the MTV Generation. Bands such as Nirvana, Anthrax, and Nine Inch Nails were taking control of the airwaves. Fuelled by the rebellious rock culture, Trent Reznor (The Social Network) creates a soundtrack with the same attitude as the feature. From Leonard Cohen’s narcotic “Waiting for a Miracle” to Bob Dylan’s “You Belong To Me“, there’s an anthem for every mood. Songs are used to such effect that they are transcendent. A Nine Inch Nails original, “Something I Can Never Have“, plays whilst Mickey is having a bad hallucinogenic experience in the desert. It penetrates the flawed protagonist and the soul of the movie perfectly. Reznor’s synonymous work would later appear in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and The Girl on the Train (2016). A standard that future scores would be judged against.

I will be forever indebted to Reznor’s Original Soundtrack and the mark it left on me. Whether or not it had the same musical influence on others is difficult to say. Regardless, it opened my ears up to various bands and artists, such as Nine Inch Nails, Patti Smith, and ‘Riot Grrrl’ band L7. To this day it remains one of my favourite movie soundtracks. Considering so much publicity was swept up in a panic over “copycat killers”, the music was an afterthought. However, the album certainly targeted a broad enough audience. Selling enough copies to eventually go gold and reaching No.19 on the US Billboard Chart. Although it may not have outsold OST’s for The Bodyguard (1992) or Forrest Gump (1994), it’s definitely the most adventurous. More importantly, Reznor aurally replicated the hallucinogenic experience of watching the movie.

While Natural Born Killers is now a quarter-century old, it remains just as relevant as a commentary on media sensationalism. Paired with the incredible OST, it can come across as an amateurish two-hour music video, but its innovative style makes it an experimental movie rather than a genre film. An art film rather than a studio film, and one that influenced other gonzo movies like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). The ensemble cast all deliver great performances, especially Harrelson and Lewis as the murderous leads. The unorthodox and chaotic aesthetic direction may seem a little outdated, but in 1994 it raised the artistic bar for other directors to aspire to. It’s a shame it was poorly received by critics at the time because it delivers a rich social commentary rather than sickening levels of pointless violence.

Oliver Stone’s focus wasn’t the violence of Mickey and Mallory’s crimes, but the coverage of it.

frame rated divider retrospective

natural born killers

Cast & Crew

director: Oliver Stone.
writers: Richard Rutowski, Oliver Stone & David Veloz (story by Quentin Tarantino).
starring: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey, Jr., Tommy Lee Jones & Tom Sizemore.

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