NATURAL BORN KILLERS: ORIGINAL UNCUT VERSION
Review by Michael Jacobson
Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom
Director: Oliver Stone
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 122 Minutes
Release Date: October 13, 2009
"Whole world's coming to an end, Mal."
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 after the fact, 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 was 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.
Fans should be grateful that Warner has seemingly begun relaxing its rules about not releasing unrated films under their banner. We finally got the uncensored version of Stanley Kubrick's final film Eyes Wide Shut, and now, we have Natural Born Killers under the right studio logo at last. The extra footage was indeed extreme, and probably landed on the wrong side of an R rating, but unlike the puzzling extra footage in the director's cut of JFK, the restored version of this film only serves to cement its unsettling and haunting power.
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 90s.
What does that say about us?
BONUS TRIVIA: The story is credited to Quentin Tarantino, although Stone changed his original treatment so much that Tarantino tried unsuccessfully to have his own name removed from the final product.
Video *** 1/2
Considering the movie itself is a hodgepodge mix of all kinds of film stocks, video, color, black and white and so on, this Blu-ray represents as good a rendering of occasionally and deliberately lesser elements. The images are rendered with sharpness and clarity, and the occasional graininess or scratchiness is there as a matter of artistic choice. Both color and black and white stretches come through with solid contrast and crisp details.
This uncompressed audio represents the best improvement over the former unrated DVD cut offering (from a studio whose name we won't mention). The dynamic range is much more potent in Dolby TrueHD, and the music and explosive sequences help raise the energy of the experience to the original heights felt in the theatre. Surrounds are tastefully used in some of the bigger scenes like the prison revolt, but the quieter, more dialogue-driven scenes (and yes, there are some) come through cleanly and with a balance that makes even the lower end of the dynamic spectrum a solid listen.
This Blu-ray set offers some very nice extras, including something brand new for this disc: a new featurette called "How Would It All Go Down Now?" Or, in other words, has the movie become more or less topical after fifteen years?
Oliver Stone offers a solid commentary track and a new introduction to the movie. There are multiple deleted scenes, many already legendary because they left the likes of Denis Leary, Ashley Judd, Rachel Ticotin and the Barbarian Brothers on the cutting room floor. "Chaos Rising" examines the controversy that surrounded the movie in its day, and there is an interview segment with Oliver Stone by Charlie Rose.
Rounding out is the alternate ending and the original trailer.
I think Natural Born Killers stands out as one of the most important films of the 90s. 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.