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NATURAL BORN KILLERS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore
Director:  Oliver Stone
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Trimark
Features:  See Review
Length:  121 Minutes
Release Date:  January 25, 2000

Film ****

When Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers first hit the screen in 1994, it did so amongst a sea of controversy.  The film touched a raw, bleeding nerve of American society by holding up a mirror to it the way no other film had done in recent memory.  And many didn’t like what they saw.  Some thought the concept of using cold blooded serial killers as the subject of a satire on America’s fascination with celebrities, and the way the media sensationalizes them, as bombastic overkill.  Five years later, having seen Time magazine put the screwed up kids behind the Columbine massacre on their cover, Stone’s unsettling vision seems oddly prophetic.  We wonder why violence in our society has grown so out of control, all the while forking over our hard earned dollars for the privilege of reading about it in the papers and magazines, and watching it on television.  Inquiring minds want to know?

We blame the movies, and ironically enough, Stone’s film has been the subject of legal investigation as to whether or not art actually can inspire violence, as opposed to merely reflecting it.  It’s a controversy that will probably range on forever.  I suppose someone who’s either stupid enough or unbalanced enough to begin with might watch this movie and decide to go on a killing spree, but for those individuals, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a Natural Born Killers to provide the provocation.  After all, Charles Manson found the desire to murder from listening to the Beatles’ White Album.

Part of the reason for the backlash is the undeniable power of the film.  What Stone has created here is an all out assault on the senses, and an uncompromising and disturbing use and juxtaposition of images designed to rattle America right down to her de-sensitized guts.  He doesn’t film his violence the way a typical action director might.  Sometimes he makes it surreal, as we follow a bullet that seems to pause before striking home, or track a spinning knife as it crashes through a window and finds a warm body to rest in.  Most of the time, we see images reflecting the psyche of Mickey (Harrelson) and Mallory (Lewis) as they kill:  blood soaked demons, raging fires, bits of animation.  It never lets us forget that something horrifying is at work here. 

But the story is not really about two killers.  Instead, it’s about our fascination with violence and the people who perpetrate it.  Consider the scenes of Mallory’s childhood, as we witness her receiving verbal and sexual abuse from her ogre father (Rodney Dangerfield), and how unsettling Stone makes it by presenting it like a TV sitcom, on video tape with studio lighting, complete with canned laughter.  In other words, he presents it like entertainment, because such real life horrors have actually become just that in our world.  And consider the character of Wayne Gale (Downey Jr.), a TV journalist obviously modeled after Geraldo Rivera, who has made a career out of profiling the country’s most notorious mass murderers.  He pretends on camera to be shocked and repulsed, but behind the scenes he is a gleeful, slithering snake, who’s more than happy when body counts pile up, because it means better ratings for him. 

In an audacious move, Stone lets Gale interview Mickey live, on Superbowl Sunday (the biggest pre-planned media event of the year) in the middle of a prison.  In an eruptive series of sequences, Gale and crew find themselves in the middle of a frighteningly chaotic and deadly prison riot, as Mickey and Mallory attempt to make a bloody march to freedom.  In not-too-subtle but potent ways, Stone demonstrates how much these two monsters, the murderer and the media, exist in a symbiotic relationship, as Gale, who will do anything for the story of his career, actually helps Mickey and Mallory in their quest for freedom.  Sometimes being a willing hostage, other times going so far as to firing the gun himself.  Like Nebuchanezzer, who behaved so much like a beast that he eventually became one for seven years, Gale disintegrates right in front of our eyes, becoming a raging maniac who claims he’s never felt so alive.

But that’s one of the major points of the film.  Consider that the two lead characters are callous murderers:  they are bad guys, to be sure, but who are the good guys?  Nobody else in the film comes as close to winning our sympathy.  Not the cop who chases them (Sizemore), an egomaniac who wrote a book about himself, and who takes pleasure in murdering a prostitute in a hotel room just because he has the power to do so.  He kills for the pleasure of the moment while hunting down Mickey and Mallory, not for the sake of law enforcement, but to further the legend he is in his own mind.  The warden (Jones) is a smarmy, weasel of a man who’s also caught up in himself, and plans to write the ending to the couple’s story his way.  Or what of the hoards of “fans” who show up outside the courtroom in support of the duo—kids who find them cool, women carrying signs that read “Murder Me Mickey”.  That’s us on the screen, and that’s at least part of the reason why the film unsettles so much.

Stone also compounded the effect by creating his film with a hodgepodge of cameras and film stocks.  He mixes color with black and white, he uses 16 and 8 mm film in addition to the standard 35, and throws in some videotape, stock footage, and adds grain, dirt and streaks to certain segments.  Other pieces of film make use of internal editing, creating a background for one scene out of something entirely different.  There’s even a little animation tossed into the mix.  The result is like a Marcel Duchamp painting; a collage of every available medium that comes together like carefully controlled chaos.  You can study each portion individually, or step back and marvel at the way the entire work comes together.

In the end, I personally appreciate Natural Born Killers because it is bravura filmmaking; a movie made with passion, anger, and cynicism about the times in which we live.  It’s not what I would call a pleasurable viewing experience—indeed, I’ve seen people who’ve watched it for the first time look a bit pale and shaky afterwards—but it is not a necessary commodity of art that it be palatable in order to be good.  Those who don’t understand the nature of the movie they’re watching need look no further than the last bit of film in the stretch run before the end credits.  O. J. Simpson, Tanya Harding, the Menendez brothers, Lorena Bobbitt, Rodney King.  A who’s who list of some of the top celebrities of the 90’s.  What does that say about us?

Video ***

I had hoped for an anamorphic transfer, but still, the video transfer gets good marks.  Considering that the film encompasses a wide variety of stocks and looks, some segments are supposed to look grainy and scarred, or overly saturated with one color or another.  I saw the film five times theatrically, and I feel the image on this DVD represents a quality rendering of the source material...it's just not inherently the kind of disc you'd ever grab to show off your DVD player.

Audio **

I was a little disappointed in the 5.1 soundtrack, though, as in many places, it seemed to have been mixed without its dynamic range…for example, when Mickey begins his shooting spree in the prison, Rage Against the Machine is supposed to come blasting out of the speakers as a strong contrast to the relative quiet that came before.  Here, it’s all mixed at about the same level.  I don’t know why this was done, given DVD’s sound capabilities, but, there it is.  There was also surprisingly little use of the rear stage.  The back speakers kicked in occasionally, but not nearly as much as I remembered.

Features ****

Trimark assembled a terrific package to accompany this director’s cut.  There is an Oliver Stone commentary track (quite good), a recent documentary in which Stone and his cast and crew reflect on the long, strange journey of the film, the alternate ending, a bevy of deleted scenes, and a special trailer Trimark made to promote this unrated version.

Summary:

I think Natural Born Killers stands out as one of the most important films of the 90’s.  You might embrace it as a masterful art movie with a rather harsh and uncompromising message, or then again, you might hate it and consider it indicative of everything that’s wrong about popular culture in this day and age.  One thing you won’t do is walk away from the experience with nothing.  Good art always provokes an initial response of some kind, and the best art will keep you thinking about it long after your encounter with it.