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Review: Natural Born Killers (1994)

Natural Born Killers (1994)

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Premise: A satire of action films and media coverage of real life violence. Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) escape from violent childhoods and go on a cross-country killing spree. In the process, an unscrupulous television journalist (Robert Downey Jr.) turns them into celebrities.

What Works: In the early 1990s, Quentin Tarantino wrote and sold a script titled Natural Born Killers. The rights to the script changed hands and eventually ended up at Warner Bros. Natural Born Killers was developed for the screen by filmmaker Oliver Stone, who rewrote the script along with David Veloz and Richard Rutowski. At this time there was a great sense of anxiety in the culture stemming from events like the Branch Davidian standoff in Texas, the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. At the same time, television was sowing the roots of reality television with lurid info-tainment programs like A Current Affair and talk shows hosted by the likes of Jerry Springer and Geraldo Rivera. It was in that context that Stone, Veloz, and Rutowski revised Tarantino’s script and the resulting film was an insane trip through the American cultural landscape. Natural Born Killers is a kaleidoscope of violence and deranged characters made all the more stunning, and sometimes nauseating, because of a freewheeling cinematic style. Whatever its shortcomings, Natural Born Killers is a stunning achievement in cinematic craft and it is one of the most ambitious movies to ever come out of Hollywood. What makes Natural Born Killers so successful is how it combines things that don’t appear to belong together and the juxtapositions create new meanings. For example, a flashback of Mallory’s abusive childhood plays like a sitcom, complete with canned laughter, and the cast includes comedian Rodney Dangerfield as her molesting father. The clash of elements is distressing and its makes the audience reconsider how their culture is presented to them both in terms of docile domestic life and as violence mass marketed as entertainment. The askew tone of the movie is carried by its tremendous cast. Natural Born Killers is led by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as murderous lovers Mickey and Mallory and they have a Bonnie and Clyde-like appeal; the most unexpected thing about Natural Born Killers is that it’s a love story and Harrelson and Lewis have an insanely passionate chemistry that makes the rest of the movie work. Despite the furor around the movie’s violence, Natural Born Killers is a story about two people in an authentic loving relationship against a background of plasticity, corruption, and indifference. The challenge for Mickey and Mallory is to maintain their love while the real villains of the film try to keep them apart or exploit their love and absorb it into an ugly culture.

What Doesn’t: Natural Born Killers is a movie of 1994 and that becomes quite obvious in the pop culture references. The film cuts away to events of that time like the O.J. Simpson trial, the Menendez brothers murders, and the Waco disaster. That in itself is not necessarily bad; movies are made in a historical context and part of their value is the way they encapsulate their time. Natural Born Killers is more problematic in its politics, and especially what it has to say about violence, media, and society. In interviews featured as supplements on the home video release, Oliver Stone has maintained that Natural Born Killers is about the culture being corrupted by sensational media and that television actually conditions people to be killers through desensitization. That argument doesn’t square with the content of this movie and its message is ultimately muddled. In the twenty years since it was released, the predictions that Natural Born Killers forecast for the culture haven’t really come true. Media is everywhere and its owners have decreasing scrupulousness but violent crime has been on the decline, punching a hole in Natural Born Killers’ nihilistic vision. If the movie is taken in the way Oliver Stone insists that it should, then the film is disconnected from reality and not in the way that the filmmakers intended.

DVD extras: The 20th anniversary edition blu-ray release of Natural Born Killers includes both the theatrical version and the director’s cut. The set also features an introduction by Oliver Stone, a commentary track, interviews, deleted scenes, featurettes, a documentary, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Natural Born Killers is a superbly crafted and philosophically flawed piece of filmmaking. The movie is often ranked with titles like A Clockwork Orange and Cannibal Holocaust among the most controversial films of all time and it shares a lot in common with those pictures both in terms of its tone and politics but also in its flaws. Natural Born Killers is primarily a cultural artifact of the 1990s but its critique of American culture remains at least partly relevant.

Episode: #156 (September 9, 2007); Revised #508 (September 14, 2014)