Mister rabbit says, “A movie review is worth a thousand prayers.”
In 1994 I was in college with aspirations of filmmaking. While my university did not have a dedicated film curriculum, my Mass Media Communications major with a Creative Writing minor afforded me classes in screenwriting, film criticism, editing, camerawork, and more.
But as the major was not simply film, there were numerous other classes I had to take for my degree. The list included Communication Ethics, First Amendment rights, studies of media impacts on the audience, and journalism, to name a few. As a college junior, I lived and breathed my major. Every form of entertainment I enjoyed, from video games to television to books to film, was a subject for my college studies. I wrote papers and gave multimedia presentations on violence in film, with a special focus on the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises.
But that year produced something unexpected from Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino. I was used to films factoring into my curriculum, but I never expected a major motion picture to be studying the same topic.
Natural Born Killers did just that.
The story is pure Tarantino. Having rewatched both True Romance and Reservoir Dogs multiple times I instantly saw a familiar trope in Mickey and Mallory Knox — the killers/anti-heroes of this film. Seeing two young outlaws in love and on a crime spree seemed right out of True Romance. That they are also merciless murderers felt like an extension of some of the characters from Reservoir Dogs — Mickey and Mallory could be Mr. and Mrs. Blonde. Finally, the film has a non-linear narrative that ends in a Mexican standoff. Despite Tarantino distancing himself from the production I saw his fingerprint on the negative.
I did later read the original script, which was published in book form. That draft was far more Tarantino, but still a reach for the director. More than a crime film, Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers had a pointed critique on American tabloid journalism.
Yet, in the hands of Oliver Stone, the film’s focus on the media grew exponentially. Stone, along with screenwriters David Veloz and Richard Rutowski, rewrote the script to the point that Tarantino ended up only receiving story credit. In the hands of Stone’s team, Natural Born Killers became a scathing commentary on American media.
It could not have hit at a more appropriate time. Rush Limbaugh was scoring big on radioand television with his daily indictment of the Clinton administration. Meanwhile the country was transfixed by the O.J. Simpson case. While this movie was released a few months before the trial began, the Ford Bronco chase and Simpson’s arrest were constant news.
The media focus seemed to go from one real-life drama to the next, be it Amy Fisher, Tonya Harding, Heidi Fleiss, the Menendez brothers, or even Woody Allen’s divorce from Mia Farrow — all were fodder for the newspapers and 24-hour news channels. What had once been the domain of the National Enquirer was suddenly considered “real news.” It seemed everyone was being given a talk show, and those who couldn’t host a show tried to get their 15 minutes of fame by appearing on one.
It’s ironic that Stone undertook this film as a chance to make a simple action picture, but he doesn’t do “simple.” As such, the result is an indictment not only of the media companies that propagate such coverage, but also the populace that consumes it.
Mickey and Mallory Knox, as brought to life by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, are products of the media. Despite Harrelson being in his early 30s when this film was made, Mickey and Mallory feel like members of the “MTV Generation.” These two realize they will never be TV stars, so they’ll be the next best thing: headline-makers. They guarantee it, always leaving one person alive to tell the media about Mickey and Mallory.
The journalists are not left untouched, though. The second half of the movie gets a shot of adrenaline in the form of Robert Downey, Jr., turning in a tremendous performance as tabloid TV reporter Wayne Gale. With an affected Aussie accent and an equally affected sympathetic persona, Gale convinces Mickey to do his first TV interview. As the film’s madness grows Gale starts to believe his own press, and eventually realizes the time comes when the audience wants to turn the TV off.
From the first frame to the last, Natural Born Killers is a film about the superficiality of personas, examining the concept of who a person is versus how he/she wants to be seen. While that difference is often greatest in the cases of public figures who must act a certain way in public but may be very different behind closed doors, the script shows that everyone has that secret face. The insight to that is Detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), who appears to be the heroic cop who brings down Mickey and Mallory. Yet the audience sees that he is a mirror image to Mickey. While Mickey kidnaps, rapes, and murders an innocent woman, Scagnetti hires, screws, and strangles a hooker.
Every character in the film is disgusting and immoral–save one Navajo Indian from whom Mickey and Mallory seek shelter. This character calls out blatantly that the two killers watch “too much TV.” While the mystical, magical medicine man is a blatant stereotype, he is the only character in the film who doesn’t deserve a bullet (but he gets one anyway). The police, the media, Mallory’s parents, even the random stranger Mallory seduces at a gas station, are all contemptible and repugnant.
In other words, they’re the product, creators, and consumers, of tabloid journalism.
Yet, for all of the high-minded idealism of the movie, Natural Born Killers avoids the usual “message movie” pitfall of heavy-handedness, which I discussed in my review of Philadelphia.
Stone’s filmmaking is too frenetic, too fast-paced, to ever linger. The film’s style changes with the scene; one moment we are seeing Mallory’s family portrayed as a sitcom, complete with laugh track, the next we have grainy black-and-white footage. There are even animated sequences inserted into the film that visualize the emotion of a scene. There is no way for the film to linger, there is too much going on.
In that regard, the picture is a critique of its audience. Stone knew that moviegoers in the 1990s had short attention spans, so he created a film perfectly suited to the mindset of an ADD-addled channel-flipper. The story and characters remain the same, but the tone, even the film stock, continually change. Stone also inserts bits of real commercials, as if he holds the remote we’re watching him scan to see what else is on.
The result is a trippy, psychedelic movie that truly feels like a tonal companion piece to his 1991 film The Doors. Mickey and Mallory are also rock stars of the media, and they even seek guidance from the spiritual Native American.
Like that earlier Stone film, Natural Born Killers is an experience more than a narrative. The color pallette, the transition to animation, the first-person camera shots years before found footage films were en vogue, the result is less narrative and more emotional.
And like The Doors, Natural Born Killers is propelled by a strong soundtrack. While the former film was almost exclusively set to Jim Morrison’s music, it was limited by the subject matter. Natural Born Killers doesn’t have that limitation, and the styles of music represented are as scattered as the film techniques.
Stone collaborated with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor to produce the soundtrack, and the result is a thumping, yet moody, symphony of discord. Music from Patsy Cline is interwoven with Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, L7, Dr. Dre, and much more — with a healthy dose of Leonard Cohen at the beginning and end.
Listening to the soundtrack is almost as involving an experience as watching the film. Reznor did not simply follow the Reservoir Dogs formula of putting film clips on the CD, he actually mixed it with the music, creating an aural cinematic experience.
(Though for those of us who are musical purists, it also ensured I bought many of the bands’ original albums to have versions of the songs without added effects and dialogue. It was this album that set me on the road to Leonard Cohen super-fandom.)
This entire tone could have been undercut by the lead actors, but Stone directed his cast expertly. All the leads, and key supporting characters, have left realism at the door. Exaggeration is the name of the game, so lines are screamed or drawled, movements emphasized, and facial expressions broad. Alone, that type of acting could undermine a film, but with the crazed visuals that accompany the scenes anything more natural would be lost.
The standout of the cast is Harrelson. Much like Tom Hanks with Philadelphia, I knew Harrelson from his comedies — not just Cheers, but Doc Hollywood, White Men Can’t Jump and even The Cowboy Way. I worried he could not pull off a performance as a homicidal maniac. More, as Harrelson was the son of a hit man who may have been involved in the John F. Kennedy assassination, it felt like stunt casting of the worst type.
I was again wrong as I watched Harrelson, head shaved, fall into the character. By the film’s climax — when he has to break the fourth wall and deliver the line “I’m just a natural born killer” — all thoughts of comedy were gone. He was just a bad-ass, homicidal, rock star.
His performance is clearly aided by those of his co-stars. Lewis, a quirky actress I first noticed with 1993’s Cape Fear, is perfectly cast as a psychotic who becomes empowered and emancipated by following Mickey’s murderous examples. Sizemore carries a sleazy menace that follows him to every frame. Even Tommy Lee Jones overacts to the heavens as the spiteful prison warden. The result is a cast in perfect harmony, complimenting each other and their movie.
When I saw this film in theaters opening weekend I was mesmerized. I walked out, my head full of new viewpoints that I could incorporate into my coursework. I went back the very next day to try and catch more of the film, and to again experience the weird acid trip it offered.
Natural Born Killers spoke to me at a time in my life where I was already receptive to its message. I walked in expecting a road movie featuring mass murderers. I left thinking about media, and my own role in its creation.
But like Stone’s earlier film Wall Street, I feel the message of Natural Born Killers has been lost at best, or perverted at worst. Several instances of “copycat crimes” have appeared in the media, killers completely missing the point and, instead, are seemingly inspired by Mickey and Mallory Knox. It’s impossible to say if those acts would have been done without this film, but it’s a sad irony that a movie about the dangers of media violence then creates its own.
Yet every day when I look at the news, I feel that Natural Born Killers did not succeed in warning the media, or its consumers, about the impact of tabloid journalism. From Britney Spears’ head-shaving incident to Charlie Sheen’s “winning” display to even Robin Williams’ tragic suicide, the media is there to try and grab big ratings under the guise of informing the public.
On TV, audiences laughed at the obviously drugged antics of Anna Nicole Smith, until she died from her drugs. Audiences insist on Keeping Up with the Kardashians and watching Honey Boo Boo, The Bachelor or Catfish. Producers and editors sculpt clips from those shows, take sound bites out of context, and spend thousands of hours creating an audience-pleasing narrative of good versus bad that may have little bearing on reality.
I don’t know if fans of these shows a) don’t realize they manipulate the stars and their audience, or b) don’t care. Either way, we continue down the spiral to Stone’s original vision.
But if Natural Born Killers’ message didn’t last, the film didn’t stick with me either. Through my college years Stone’s film was in heavy rotation on my VCR. When the VHS release of the Director’s Cut came in 1997 (so long it had to be on two tapes) I rented it the first day. That was when I felt the trippy effect had finally worn off and I was no longer under the movie’s spell.
The scenes cut from Natural Born Killers — available on the second VHS tape — had every reason to be cut. I watched the extra hour Stone filmed for this movie and realized that, truly, this was a film made in the editing bay and not on the set. Assembling all the footage, including the cut trial scene and Mickey and Mallory’s attack on wrestling brothers Simon and Norman Hun, I realize Stone had a production out of control. The behind-the-scenes knowledge soiled this film for me, and for a decade I had trouble watching it at all. Now I can credit the final product, knowing how bad this movie almost was.
But in the fall of 1994 two Tarantino scripts were in theaters simultaneously: Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction. The masses crowded around Fiction, and Tarantino took home Oscar gold.
I greatly enjoy that second Tarantino-directed film, but if you asked me in the mid-90s to name my favorite of those two works, it had to be Natural Born Killers.
Tomorrow — 1995!
Arnie is a movie critic for Now Playing Podcast, a book reviewer for the Books & Nachos podcast, and co-host of the collecting podcasts Star Wars Action News and Marvelicious Toys. You can follow him on Twitter @thearniec