By now, American critics have worn out their thesauri hunting for adjectives to describe Natural Born Killers. So I have set myself the following challenge: not to use the words “gonzo,” “chaotic,” “revolutionary,” and especially “brilliant” in this review. So what does that leave? Words like “unpleasant,” “breathtaking,” “incoherent,” “unforgettable,” “exhausting,” “disturbing,” “hypocritical,” “near-great,” “oafish”…. As you can see, I’m of two minds about NBK. Would I recommend it? Definitely — I aim to see it at least twice more. Yet I must be honest: NBK is electrifying, except when it’s stupid. That’s par for the course in a film by Oliver Stone, the burly master of cinematic assault (JFK, The Doors, Platoon). Here, however, Stone’s approach is even more toxic and confrontational than usual — that of a rapist who attacks your daughter in front of you, then tells you the experience will make you and her stronger. Stone both gleefully anticipates and wearily disdains our heated response to his work, a strange position for an artist. And he is an artist, a red-black mirror on ugly times.
Natural Born Killers is nothing if not ugly. Treating an original script by Quentin Tarantino as a blueprint, Stone has come up with a hectoring satire on our degraded culture. The most expensive experimental film made in this country since Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, NBK employs a variety of film stocks and techniques (video, animation, back-screen projection, morphing). Edited ferociously, so that each scabrous image pierces us like a flying shard of glass, the movie is a bubbling cauldron of movie sorcery, intended to suggest the violent iconography of the 20th century thrown into a blender. I smelled weed on many of the strangers surrounding me in the theater, but going to this movie stoned is redundant: The director makes sure you get Stoned. Nothing in NBK, literally not a single shot, looks or sounds normal, and Stone mounts an all-out war on our senses, our sensibilities, our sense of reality. This is an ambitious, all-or-nothing guerrilla project, and it seems churlish to point out that it’s all a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.
But it has to be said. For Natural Born Killers is without mind and heart. And plot. Stone follows two murderous young crackers, Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), as they shoot and stab their way down the highways and through the ghost towns of the Southwest. On their trail are Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), a loathsome, violent detective who wants to capture them and pen a self-glorifying bestseller about them (he also has a thing for Mallory); and Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), the pretentious Aussie host of the trash-TV series “American Maniacs,” whose philosophy about his job seems to shift according to Stone’s hop-skip whims. Everyone else in America seems to be cheering on these sociopathic rednecks — everyone, that is, except the 52 corpses they leave in their wake. Mickey and Mallory come from dysfunctional backgrounds, and they kill for spiritual and cathartic reasons; years of Oprah and Donahue have taught us not to condemn these poor lost souls who continue, helplessly and unconsciously, the cycle of brutality. A movie that explored the new, misguided, touchy-feely media interest in psychos and their troubled origins (this is a climate that made possible the publication of a bewildered memoir by Jeffrey Dahmer’s dad) would truly be a brave satire. But Stone takes the easy road, giving evil its own fan club. NBK is like a William S. Burroughs rewrite of The Legend of Billie Jean. These lovers are lean, cool and sexy, and they take no crap. Right on, Mickey and Mallory — go get ’em.
Stone, an enemy of “the media” who somehow always forgets that he is also part of “the media,” uses Scagnetti and Gale to score blatantly obvious satirical points off of “the media.” No victim in Natural Born Killers is as viciously bloodied and mutilated as is “the media.” That the film has been lionized by TV, print, and radio critics, that it has a tie-in soundtrack album and novelization, and that it owes at least half its success to the aura of controversy generated by advance media hype, are probably not ironies that Stone chooses to acknowledge. After all, he leaves out the most obvious touch of all: At the end, Mickey and Mallory take off for points unknown, and Oliver Stone makes a movie about them. What is Stone doing if not glorifying their trippy journey? He doesn’t disapprove, and he doesn’t view them neutrally.
Natural Born Killers has been likened to A Clockwork Orange by critics who seek another dark, violent satire to compare it with, but who may not have seen the recent Belgian “mockumentary” Man Bites Dog, which NBK more closely resembles (and which makes a much bolder statement about the complicity between a killer, those who film his actions, and those who watch the film). Stylistically, the comparison does hold water. Stanley Kubrick’s classic, which remains as provocative today as it was 23 years ago, pushed the envelope of film language much the same way Stone’s movie does. As satire, though, NBK isn’t in the same league. The characters, particularly Tommy Lee Jones (admittedly hilarious) as a grotesque prison warden, are so frantically cartoonish that each horrific event lies at a safe remove from us. The movie is set on Bizarro World, its inhabitants and visuals so overheated, so overwrought, so over-everything, that nothing in it relates to us directly. It’s a howling vortex of a movie, and staring into a vortex can be mindlessly enthralling until you realize you are looking into an infinite loop of emptiness: A vortex has a vacuum at its center. That’s Natural Born Killers.
The movie comes at you and comes at you; it leaves you with nothing except sore eyes and a numbed brain. Yet I left the theater raving about it — when I was eventually able to speak — so I guess I’d better justify that now. This has not been a summer for daring films (what summer ever is?), and I’ve spent the last several months departing most every movie with a boring certainty of what I thought of it. Come home, write the review, forget about it. (Recently I was a little surprised to remember that I had in fact seen Maverick.) Natural Born Killers won’t vacate my memory any time soon. The movie annihilates itself, but what gorgeous suicidal sparks it sends off! For two hours, Stone pelts you with images that are sickening, beautiful, nonsensical, lucid, offensive, soothing, sometimes all at once. Inevitably, some images stick faster than others. A recurring shot of a headless bloody body rising slowly from a chair has stayed with me longer than I want it to, but I had to think a minute to recall its context (ah, yes, Mickey’s dad shotgunned himself).
No sane moviegoer would want a steady diet of films like this, but its ferocious abrasiveness is precisely what makes it perversely refreshing. If you can dissociate yourself from the brutality, this is a hell of a ride; and yet that same dissociation produces apathy and even contempt for the suffering people on the screen. No two ways about it: Natural Born Killers is not a moral work. But I’ve sat through many moral films that weren’t half this vivid; the movie has a writhing, ugly life unlike anything I’ve seen before. The troubling question: Do audiences respond so readily to the violence Stone does to conventional narrative form, or to the violence Mickey and Mallory do to their randomly selected and mostly undeserving prey? To see the movie in a packed house, sitting with excitable teenagers, can be more disquieting than the movie itself: The film carries a whiff of danger, which spreads through the audience like a virus. In more ways than one, I was relieved to get out.
When Oliver Stone isn’t busy mauling “the media,” a sprightly side comes out. Mallory, flashing back on her first meeting with Mickey, remembers it as a sitcom — “I Love Mallory” — with Rodney Dangerfield (perfectly cast) as Mallory’s repulsive, sexually abusive father. Complete with a laugh track and a burst of applause when Mickey enters, the scene is the funniest thing in the movie, but the laughter sticks in one’s throat, as Stone probably means it to. But is Stone also saying that sitcoms contribute to our spiritual cancer by presenting unrealistic candy-views of loving families? Has Stone seen Married…with Children or Roseanne, two of the most popular and durable sitcoms on the air? I also liked Mickey’s complaining about violent movies (“Don’t anybody kiss any more?”) while clips from Midnight Express and Scarface, scripted by guess who, play on TV — signalling that Stone is willing to take at least some of his own abuse. (The joke is funnier if you know that these two films represent opposite tacks in the art-influences-life debate: Midnight Express was touted — falsely, as it turned out — as having greased the wheels for more humane treatment of prisoners in Turkish jails, while Scarface has provided a role model for countless real-life gangsters.)
But in the end, Stone spares himself. Unlike Man Bites Dog, NBK sprays little venom at those who made the movie or those who pay to see it. The target is safely “them” — “those people” who produce or watch “those tabloid shows.” (Ah, so television is the fountain of evil — not movies or music or video games? Oliver Stone, meet Marshall McLuhan.) If that’s the target, why not get into the subject of why many Americans, made fearful and paranoid by the brutal worldview presented by tabloid TV, go out and buy guns, therefore becoming part of the problem? Oliver Stone’s best work has been muckraking take-no-prisoners stuff like Salvador; if any moviemaker has a tabloid sensibility, he does. Unless I’m mistaken, Natural Born Killers, beneath its dark jocularity, is Stone’s self-hating projection onto our society. We’re not seeing what’s in Mickey and Mallory’s heads — we’re seeing what’s in Oliver Stone’s head. Who else put it on the screen? Perhaps Stone, who’s described the making of NBK as “more fun” than anything else he’s directed, was reluctant to piss too much on his own parade. The fearless, confrontational muckraker backs away from confronting himself.
For my part, I’m ready to give considerable slack to any filmmaker who takes me somewhere I haven’t been. Whether good or bad (and there’ve been a few bad), all of Oliver Stone’s movies are passports to someplace hostile, strange, brutally rejuvenating. He is the Sin Eater of Hollywood, turning his heart black to absolve us of our guilt; nobody elected him, but nobody else is doing it. Thematically, and in many other ways, NBK is juvenile unless this is your first satire or your first road movie. Stylistically, though, it’s a new, scary critter far outside the usual film menagerie. Your response to it depends on what means more to you. Content and form matter equally to me, and so I end as I began: I’m torn. Natural Born Killers is both awesome and exasperating. So is a lot of outright trash; so is a lot of great art.
For a 15-years-later retrospective, go here.