15 Years Later: Natural Born Killers

Fifteen years ago today, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers landed shrieking onto the American consciousness like some demented, misshapen eagle. I went to see it twice — once on opening weekend, again a week or so later — and both times vaguely feared for my life.

I was right at the tail end of NBK‘s target demographic, 18-25 (I’d recently turned 24). The theater was packed with people in my age group, and many of them were high. There was a pungent Dionysian party vibe. People came to NBK already fucked up, prepared to get more fucked up by the film itself. A humid air of potential violence — a fistfight, maybe worse — filled the room, and the movie itself both fed on this vibe of incipient hostility and perpetuated it. I did not feel safe. The film did not feel safe, and was not intended to be. Something in the whole of its seething blend of styles and tones was larger than the movie’s parts: dark, evil, ugly. The bog-standard trailer predicted none of this. We knew it was going to be a wild ride, but we weren’t expecting a meta-horror movie cackling at the gory downfall of man.

Natural Born Killers, of course, was not initially envisioned this way. Fledgling screenwriter Quentin Tarantino framed it as a gritty 16mm satire, a road movie that focused at least as much on tabloid-TV reporter Wayne Gale as on Mickey and Mallory Knox, the homicidal lovers who cut a psilocybin-laced swath of death, notoriety and cult celebrity across America. Through complex circumstances best left enumerated by coproducer Jane Hamsher’s enormously entertaining book Killer Instinct, Tarantino more or less ended up selling the script and washing his hands of it, while Oliver Stone and collaborators David Veloz and Richard Rutowski made the script more expansive and weird. The result — right down to the appearance of an Indian shaman*, a de rigueur touch for Stone’s movies in the ’90s — is really more an Oliver Stone film than a Tarantino film.

Does it succeed? Fifteen years on, I’m still not sure. The movie is nothing if not heavy-handed — Stone apparently considers it “subtle” — and on some level I can’t help but agree with a friend who said that once you’ve watched NBK up through the infamous Rodney Dangerfield sitcom scene, you’ve essentially seen the movie’s bag of tricks, and the remainder, though dazzling in parts, just reiterates the opening fifteen minutes on a loop for two hours. Yet no movie had ever looked, sounded or played quite like NBK. The corrosive eye-candy effect achieved by the use of many different film stocks and lighting schemes had been tested by Stone in The Doors and JFK, but NBK was his master’s thesis in this Cuisinart style. It was perfect for a channel-surfing Generation X too hip to believe in cultural heroes; the closest thing they’d had ate a shotgun the previous spring.

As you can tell by Warner’s hopelessly square trailer, NBK was never expected to be a runaway hit, and it wasn’t one. It did open at #1 with $11 million, barely edging out the behemoth Forrest Gump (which was in its eighth week of release) but handily butchering its new competitors, Camp Nowhere and Wagons East. It also enjoyed by far the highest per-screen average of the weekend. The buzz worked. But it wasn’t enough to propel it beyond a modest hit. After a surprising second weekend in which it only dipped 6%, NBK settled down to more standard numbers, finishing its domestic run with $50 million and change — about the same as Angels in the Outfield and The Crow.

It continued to provide tabloid fodder, though, well into the ’90s and beyond. For a while, it seemed as though every maladjusted lump of young white trash who killed anybody pointed to NBK as an inspiration. (That or Marilyn Manson.) Lawyer turned hack author John Grisham, whose friend had been killed in one of the supposed copycat sprees, crusaded against the film, laughably comparing works of art to defective breast implants. I’m of two minds about whether NBK, or any work of fiction, can be directly causally linked to real-life horrors. It’s certainly possible that if a film, book, album, etc., can inspire good, it can also inspire evil. But only if the capacity for good or evil is already there. NBK may have given young idiots a narrative to emulate, but it didn’t hypnotically (or psychotronically) change average viewers into the sort of people who would emulate that narrative. You don’t walk into NBK as a God-fearin’ Boy Scout and walk out as Dylan Klebold. A lot of stuff has to happen along the way before you get to the point where you’re hunting humans.

Aside from the controversy, has the film endured — has it transcended the controversy? It doesn’t seem to have become much of a cultural marker — not nearly as much as the other Tarantino-penned film later that same year, Pulp Fiction. Not that it matters a whole lot, but it got no Oscar nominations — not even for Robert Richardson’s whirligig cinematography or the crazy-quilt editing by Brian Berdan and Hank Corwin.

Though it keeps getting blamed for real-world brutality, NBK would seem to have been a very of-the-moment phenomenon, coming as it did on the heels of the Menendez brothers, Tonya Harding, and O.J. — all of whom get trotted out at the end. The thing is, Stone wanks on the same murderer-as-celebrity point over and over again, a point that had already been made just a few months earlier in John Waters’ Serial Mom, which itself was something of a kinder, gentler rewrite of Waters’ Female Trouble from twenty years before. Even stylistically, NBK hasn’t aged well, since its then-outrageous format has been bitten by everything from commercials to Tony Scott films.

If it holds up on a deeper level, it’s as a retch of disgust at a specific cultural moment — a queasy snapshot. Beware those who try to tell you NBK is “more relevant than ever.” Serial killers aren’t lionized, they’re demonized. The media — including the internet, which wasn’t around (or at least not in many homes) when NBK was released — chews everything, spits it out, and goes on to the next movable feast. My feeling is that the media fever broke when Princess Di got killed. It didn’t make paparazzi look in the mirror and confront the void where their souls should be, but it did signal a shift in what America was interested in. Americans felt bad about the role they had played in Diana’s death. The tabloids are still fixated on bullshit and scandal, and nauseating “reality shows” are everywhere, but all of it just seems like background noise now. In short, the conditions NBK railed against don’t really exist any more. America sweated out that sickness. And I’m not wholly convinced that America’s fascination with OJ, Tonya, and the Menendez brothers was due to their glamorous outlaw status; it was because they’d gotten caught. I would attribute the fascination more to schadenfreude than to a morbid fixation (although there will always be a subset of murder groupies). If there were an actual Mickey and Mallory out there somewhere, the nation would be terrified, not smitten (and this was the case back in ’94, too). Again, Tarantino was tweaking the tabloid-TV true-crime shows, which mostly profiled already-captured serial killers or the occasional unsolved crime.** People will always want to gawk at killers and try to figure out what’s going on in their heads, but that’s a lot different from turning them into rock stars. It’s more like picking up a rock and staring with transfixed disgust at whatever is squirming underneath.

A viewer who was born in 1994 — he or she would be fourteen or fifteen now — might look at NBK and find it as quaint as people of my generation found once-radical films like Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate once we finally got around to renting them. NBK is the ultimate you-had-to-be-there film; it was made for a very specific audience, who responded eagerly and then moved on to Pulp Fiction, which drew a wider audience. After Reservoir Dogs, his calling card, Quentin Tarantino only made magnum opuses (the just-for-the-hell-of-it Death Proof was an aberration). NBK wouldn’t have fit into his scheme — he intended it as a fast, dirty drive-in picture with satire here and there. Oliver Stone zeroed in on the satirical elements and added to them until it metastasized into an unruly, unholy Grand Statement on Where We Are Now in 1994.

Of the three Tarantino scripts directed by other hands — Tony Scott’s True Romance and Robert Rodriguez’ From Dusk Till Dawn being the others — NBK probably has the least rewatchability (and it’s certainly not as quotable). Its rabid-wolf groove feels too hysterically beside-the-point, its satirical darts blunted by time. It is, however, the closest of the three to art, and certainly the most ambitious. Unpleasant and thorny to the touch, it is uncompromisingly what it is. I tend to doubt that a large portion of its audience took its satirical message away with them; it was a freak-out, and was probably honestly received as such. Yet the chaos is often beautiful, even at its ugliest — especially at its ugliest. It’s tailor-made for home video, where you can watch your favorite insane bits of business. As if to mark its fifteenth birthday, Warner is unveiling a Blu-ray in October containing Stone’s preferred cut (the theatrical cut hit Blu-ray last summer). Having seen both versions, I don’t really know which one I favor. The thrill of the R-rated print was in witnessing what (in 1994) Stone could get away with and still avoid the dreaded NC-17; the uncut version offers little besides added gore, for those who dote on such things.

Of the many actors playing to the back seats, the most genuine and frightening performance belongs to Tom Sizemore as the corrupt, psychotic detective Jack Scagnetti, who kills hookers, writes hard-bitten James Ellroy-esque true-crime books glorifying his various busts, and sits in a miserably horny flop sweat when he’s finally alone with his dream girl Mallory. Sizemore, who would later make his own tabloid headlines, seems to be not only in a different movie but on a different plane of reality. It’s great work from a fine actor who in recent years has drifted into insanity and oblivion. If Robert Downey Jr. deserved a career do-over — and he did — so does Sizemore. Where’s his Marvel Comics superhero movie?

As I’ve said before, sometimes a work of art breaks free from the artist’s intentions and becomes its own willful beast. “A filmmaker can say things about his movie,” I wrote about Michael Haneke’s 2008 remake of his own Funny Games, “but the film itself might rudely contradict him.” Everyone involved in NBK expressed surprise that it could be taken as anything other than a stern condemnation of the media celebrating outlaws. This is disingenuous. The audience has been both terrified and enthralled by screen violence going at least as far back as 1902, when Edwin S. Porter had a robber fire his gun directly at us in The Great Train Robbery. To believe what NBK‘s makers claim, we would have to believe that the film, and its marketing (including a successful Trent Reznor-dominated soundtrack album), somehow exist outside “the media.”

Oh, heavens no, we’re not glorifying Mickey and Mallory, the filmmakers objected; we’re actually doing the opposite, and if you interpret the film another way, you just don’t get it. I think we “get it” more than the filmmakers did. At no point are Mickey and Mallory revealed, narratively or stylistically, to be the squalid, toxic little shitheads they would be in real life. Nor are we asked to identify with their many victims — indeed, at times we are asked to laugh at the grief of those who knew the victims (I think of Dale Dye’s cameo as a cop weeping copiously, with obvious fake tears, over the death of a fellow cop in a meant-to-be-cheesy re-enactment). We are also asked to sympathize with Mickey and Mallory’s soul-crushing childhoods. By “satirizing” the media adoration of Mickey and Mallory, NBK blunders into the old trap of becoming what it’s supposed to be excoriating.

Then again, by all accounts it was a pretty insane shoot, even by Oliver Stone standards. People partied hard and went to dark, weird places in their heads while working on the film. I think the film reflects that. Jane Hamsher quoted Stone as saying once, “There’s a demon on this set.” There may well have been. There’s something sulfurous and chaotic about the movie. Drugs were taken, spirits were summoned. It’s the sort of movie that usually has a curse attached to it, like Poltergeist. In this case the curse might be the copycat killings. Some portal was opened and something bad got out. I’m not proposing any of this literally, I’m just saying … the whole energy of the film is rancid, ominous. I honestly believe the filmmakers had the best intentions and the movie just got off its leash and got away from them at full speed.

It sure is fascinating, though, watching the film flail around trying to be one thing or another, making its “points” while the whole of the experience bulldozes any such points. It’s a mesmerizing folly made by people who don’t truly seem to know what they’re making. In an unused alternate ending, Stone had Mickey and Mallory get their comeuppance via a fellow prison escapee (Arliss Howard, pictured above in a moment of foreshadowing in the film’s opening scene — said foreshadowing was rendered moot after Stone went with a different ending), who comes on to Mallory and then shotguns them both. Here was the perfect way to turn the killers’ brutal caprice back onto them — a bland monster who just ends them for no very good reason. Stone ultimately went with a denouement in which Mickey and Mallory are seen raising their own children, who will, we assume, be reared with more love than Mickey and Mallory were. So the killers get away and live happily ever after. Stone may have seen this ending as more hip and subversive than the crime-does-not-pay ending, but all it does is leave the audience, which for two hours has been following Mickey and Mallory with interest and sympathy, on a high note rather than a bummer. Some may say, once again, that this is a satire of a happy Hollywood ending. I say it just is one.


*The Indian was not in Tarantino’s original script, which simply had Mickey and Mallory getting captured at a Circle K. In the film, Mickey’s ‘shroom-addled accidental killing of the Indian is what leads to the couple’s downfall, since they get bitten by a snake in the same place and they seek an antidote at Drug Zone, which is where they finally get nabbed.

**It is interesting in retrospect to note that Mickey and Mallory, like the Basterds in Tarantino’s later Inglourious Basterds, always leave one person alive to tell the tale.

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