Natural Born Killers” is a heavy duty acid trip, quite possibly the most hallucinatory and anarchic picture made at a major Hollywood studio in at least 20 years. As a scabrous look at a society that promotes murderers as pop culture icons, as well as a scathing indictment of a mass media establishment that caters to and profits from such starmaking, the film has a contemporary relevance that no one can miss. It also happens to be Oliver Stone’s most exciting work to date strictly from a filmmaking point of view.
Served up in a highly stylized manner, this almost laughably bloody pic will once again stir up the old op-ed page arguments about violence in the cinema that date back to the late ’60s. Ensuing controversy will combine with the sheer exhilaration of the piece to provide the marketing upside, while heavy gore quotient will keep many away, resulting in strong B.O. in certain situations, but something less than widespread appeal.
A rare Stone film in that it’s neither historically rooted nor written originally by him, “Natural Born Killers” still shows the bloody fingerprints of its original author, Quentin Tarantino, although Stone has made the material his own (Tarantino receives story credit only) and supplied a thick layer of sociopolitical commentary readily recognizable as his. Using the standby “Gun Crazy”/”Bonnie and Clyde” young-lovers-on-a-killing-spree format but traveling further down that road than anyone has before, the director has made a fiction that might be said to resemble a psychedelic documentary about the American cult of sex, violence and celebrity.
Film is divided into two halves, the first of which vividly, and often outrageously, lays out the crazy three weeks during which the lead couple gun down 52 people out west. The second half presents the insane media circus which surrounds their incarceration, a live in-prison TV interview, a riot and their subsequent amazing escape. The glorification of Bonnie and Clyde that Arthur Penn’s film made note of 27 years ago is shown here to have magnified into a virtual definition of a vulgar culture, and seems quite appropriate to an age dominated by such figures as Amy Fisher, the Menendez brothers, Tonya Harding and, yes, O.J. Simpson.
Stylistic and thematic motifs are established at once, as some stunningly off-kilter, floating shots, intercut with black-and-white alternates and inserts ofanimals living and dead, lead up to Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) shooting up a roadside cafe. They kill for the sake of their great love for each other, they say, and the film’s psychological ambitions never get much deeper than that. But the wild stylistics will be a turn-on for viewers ready for a visceral ride with the feel of an elaborate, souped-up ’60s exploitation road picture.
In an audacious comic conceit, flashbacks show Mallory’s family life heretofore in literally sitcom terms, as meanie dad (Rodney Dangerfield) bullies and molests her before hunky escaped con Mickey comes along to rescue her and launch their killing spree, a la “Badlands,” by knocking off her folks.
As the two leave a trail of blood on New Mexico’s infamous Route 666, blowing away people whenever they feel like it, for no reason, but normally leaving one survivor to tell the tale, the killers quickly become the celebs of the moment, in large part due to the spotlighting provided by a show called “American Maniacs,” hosted by the fatuous Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.).
After two particularly disturbing episodes, one in which Mallory roughly seduces an innocent teenager (Balthazar Getty) before killing him, and another in which Mickey reflexively murders a wise Indian (Russell Means) who has been hospitable to them, the pair are finally cornered by police in Gallup and are taken away.
Their capture, however, merely sends the picture into an even higher gear, as the irrepressible Wayne Gale sets out to capture his highest ratings ever via a live interview with the nation’s most prolific killer on Super Bowl Sunday.
At the same time, the unhinged good old boy warden (Tommy Lee Jones) has brought in a tough cop (Tom Sizemore) to quietly eliminate Mickey and Mallory in-house. But during the TV interview, Mickey’s survival instincts come to the fore, and he manages to incite a volcanic prison riot that allows the reunited couple to escape, with the hyperbolic Gale madly taping away until the bloody end.
Much of what Stone has to say about the glorification of violence and heroization of criminals has been said before, but he takes his commentary to a level that is at once drastically more vivid, bloody and absurd, as well as appropriate to our times. The usual huffers and puffers will ask the usual questions about how one can condemn violence while indulging in it so graphically. The sheer amount of carnage is numbingly enormous, although its stylized, sometimes cartoonlike quality makes the killing much less shocking than it sometimes is in more realistic contexts.
Visually, the film is a sensation, resembling a demonically clever light show at a late ’60s rock concert. Picking up technically where he left off on “JFK,” Stone, along with his exceptional collaborators, including cinematographer Robert Richardson, editors Hank Corwin and Brian Berdan, production designer Victor Kempster and assorted visual and animation design hands, has served up a dazzling array of images that rivets the attention for two hours.
The narrative is related in color 35mm, black-and-white, Super 8 and video, and at different speeds. As the couple zooms off to some new bloody destination, the backgrounds are shown via blatantly artificial rear projection, while they and their car are bathed in a constantly changing assortment of colored lights. Throughout its course, the film moves from the extremes of stylization, sometimes punctuated by muscular animation inserts, TV recreations, the mock sitcom and film clips (including the Stone-written “Midnight Express” and “Scarface”), to the immediacy of cinema verite and on-the-spot documentary reportage. Everyone and everything is exaggerated and caricatured, but the invention and precision of the style allows it to make its points with impressive clarity.
Performers are pushed to the brink, which keeps them entertaining, if uniformly repellent. Harrelson and Lewis are all lust (blood and sex) and no conscience as the pretty couple “naturally born bad.” Jones is broader than he’s ever been as the sweaty, lip-smacking warden none too good at his job. Standout perf comes from Downey, whose imitation of Robin Leach’s distinctive cockney accent is hilariously dead-on, and who deftly conveys the true extent to which his character admireshis lethal subjects.
A wrap-up montage of celebrity criminals and suspects includes a shot of O.J. Simpson, which merely nails home the timeliness of Stone’s dizzying diatribe against a vulturelike media and the irresponsibility of modern culture. Film’s style may be akin to a shotgun blast, but it still manages to hit the bull’s eye.