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Twenty-Five Years Later, Oliver Stone’s ‘Natural Born Killers’ Is, More than Ever, the Spectacle of Our Time (Column)

Works of art that were once radical tend to find their cozy place in the cultural ecosystem. It’s almost funny to think that an audience ever booed “The Rite of Spring,” or that the Sex Pistols shocked people to their souls, or that museum patrons once stood in front of Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings or Warhol’s soup cans and said, “But is it art?” In 1971, “A Clockwork Orange” was a scandal, but it quickly came to be thought of as a Kubrick classic.

Yet “Natural Born Killers,” a brazenly radical movie when it was first released, on August 26, 1994 (25 years ago tomorrow), has never lost its sting of audacity. It’s still dangerous, crazy-sick, luridly hypnotic, ripped from the id, and visionary. I loved the movie from the moment I saw it. It haunted me for weeks afterward, and over the next few years I saw it over and over again (probably 40 times), obsessed with the experience of it, the terrible lurching beauty of it, the spellbinding truth of it. It’s a film that has never left my system.

I’ve met a number of people who feel the way I do about “Natural Born Killers,” but I’ve also run across a great many people who don’t. The reaction has always been split between those I would call “Natural Born Killers” believers (they included, at the time, such influential critics as Roger Ebert and Stanley Kauffmann) and those who thumb their noses at what they consider to be an over-the-top spectacle of Oliver Stone “indulgence.” At the time of its release, it was said that the film was bombastic, gonzo for its own sake, pretentious as hell, and — of course ­— too violent. Too flippantly violent. In a way, “Natural Born Killers” was the “Moulin Rouge!” of shotgun-lovers-on-the-lam thrillers. Either you got onto its stylized high wire, its deliberate pornography of operatic overkill, or you thought it was trash.

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The divide has never been resolved, and the movie, in 25 years, has never gained true respectability. Which I think is a good thing. Some works of art need to remain outside the official system of canonical reverence. But if you go back and watch “Natural Born Killers” today, long after all the ’90s-version-of-film-Twitter chatter about it has faded, what you’ll see (or, at least, what I hope you’ll see) is that the movie summons a unique power that descends from the grandeur of its theme. Far more than, say, “The Matrix,” “Natural Born Killers” was the movie that glimpsed the looking glass we were passing through, the new psycho-metaphysical space we were living inside — the roller-coaster of images and advertisements, of entertainment and illusion, of demons that come up through fantasy and morph into daydreams, of vicarious violence that bleeds into real violence.

I’ve always found “Natural Born Killers” a nearly impossible movie to nail down in writing (it’s like trying to capture what music sounds like). Sure, it’s easy to summarize the tale of Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson), a sloe-eyed drawling psycho in a blond ponytail, and his ragingly damaged bad-apple lover, Mallory (Juliette Lewis), the two of whom go on a killing spree that turns them into celebrities, like Bonnie and Clyde for the age of TMZ.

Yet it’s the moment-to-moment, shot-to-shot texture of the movie that transforms a two-dimensional story into a four-dimensional sensory X-ray. I took my best shot at writing about it in my 2016 memoir, “Movie Freak,” in which I said:

“The tingly audacity of ‘Natural Born Killers,’ and the addictive pleasure of watching it, begins with the perception that Mickey and Mallory experience not just their infamy but every moment of their lives as pop culture. Their lives are poured through the images they carry around in their heads. The two of them enact a heightened version of a world in which identity is increasingly becoming a murky, bundled fusion of true life and media fantasy. It works something like this: You are what you watch, which is what you want to be, which is what you think you are, which is what you really can be (yes, you can!), as long as you…believe.”

What form does this kind of belief take? It’s a word that applies, in equal measure, to the fan-geek hordes at Comic-Con; to the gun geeks who imagine themselves part of a larger “militia”; to the gamers and the dark-web conspiracy junkies; to the people who think that Donald Trump was qualified to be president because he pretended to be an imperious executive on TV. It applies to anyone who experiences the news as the world’s greatest reality show, or to the way that social media is called social media because it’s about people treating every facet of their lives as “media” —  as a verité performance. Made just before the rise of the Internet, “Natural Born Killers” captured, and predicted, a society that turns reality itself into a nonstop channel surf, a simulacrum of the life we’re living. One of the film’s most brilliant sequences is a dystopian sitcom, with a vile fulminating Rodney Dangerfield, that depicts Mallory’s hellish home. It’s a dysfunctional nightmare reduced to TV, which is what allows Mallory to murder her way out of it.

“Natural Born Killers” took off from a script by Quentin Tarantino that got drastically rewritten (Tarantino received a story credit), though it provided the basic spine of the film’s evil-hipsters-on-the-run structure and kicky satirical ultraviolence. But there’s a reason that Tarantino didn’t like the finished film; it’s not, in the end, his sensibility. His vision is suffused with irony, whereas Oliver Stone directs “Natural Born Killers” as if he were making a documentary about a homicidal acid trip.

The patchwork of film stocks that Stone employs (black-and-white, glaring color, 8mm, grainy video) turns the movie into a volcanic multimedia dream-poem. And it’s no coincidence that those clashing visual textures are an elaboration of the style that Stone invented for “JFK,” a drama about political reality (the assassination of a president) that gets sucked into the vortex of media reality (the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t mesmerization of the Zapruder film). “Natural Born Killers” pushes that dynamic several steps further, as Mickey and Mallory’s murder spree becomes a hall of mirrors that’s being televised inside their own heads. In 1967, the tagline for “Bonnie and Clyde” was “They’re young. They’re in love. And they kill people.” The tagline for “Natural Born Killers” should have been: “They kill people. So they’ll have something to watch.”

“Natural Born Killers” captures how our parasitical relationship to pop culture can magnify the cycle of violence. Yet that theme may be more dangerous now than it was in 1994. As a liberal who’s a staunch advocate of every gun-control measure conceivable, and would never think to “blame” a mass shooting on a piece of entertainment, I am nevertheless haunted by the possibility that half a century’s worth of insanely violent pop culture has had a collective numbing effect. In “Natural Born Killers,” a psychiatrist, played with diligent dryness by the comedian Steven Wright, gets interviewed on television about Mickey and Mallory, and his analysis is as follows: “Mickey and Mallory know the difference between right and wrong. They just don’t give a damn.”

That, to me, is one of the most resonant lines in all of movies, because what it’s describing now sounds chillingly close to too many of us. Sure, we all say that we care. But if you look at the actions, the judgments, the policies supported by millions of Americans, it seems increasingly clear that we’re turning into a society of people who know the difference between right and wrong, but just don’t give a damn.

Or maybe that’s too dark a thing to say. But the beauty, and brilliance, of “Natural Born Killers,” which draws on and radicalizes a tradition of movies (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Badlands,” “Taxi Driver”) that deposit the audience directly into the souls of sociopaths, is that the film dares to ask us to ask ourselves what we’re made of. To ask whether we’ve removed life from reality by turning it into a spectacle of nonstop self-projection. To ask whether we’re now watching ourselves to death.

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