NATURAL BORN KILLERS
Review by Michael Jacobson
Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom
Director: Oliver Stone
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 121 Minutes
Release Date: January 25, 2000
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.