Natural Born Killers (1994,USA)
Director: Oliver Stone Starring: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Downey Jr.
Before Quentin Tarantino shot explosively into the directing scene with his seminal debut Reservoir Dogs he had completed some scripts for features that he eventually sold to studios when he realised that nobody was going to allow him to make them himself. Natural Born Killers is one such script, bought from Quentin and placed in the hands of Oliver Stone, a man who obviously had the kind of Hollywood muscle that at the time Tarantino could only have dreamed of. Stone, along with David Veloz and Richard Rutowski decided to substantially rewrite the script, changing the spirit of the movie so substantially from Tarantino’s original vision that he disowned the film and probably still bears a sizeable grudge against Stone for what he did to it.
Clearly inspired by the real life serial killers Charles Starkweather and his lover Caril Ann Fugate who killed eleven people over the course of a week in Nebraska in the late fifties, NBK is the story of Mickey (Harrelson) and Mallory (Lewis), lovers who have embarked upon a kill crazy rampage along ‘Route 666’, killing apparently for kicks and becoming celebrities in the process thanks to being prominently featured on a syndicated real life crime show ‘American Maniacs’ hosted by ruthless TV personality Wayen Gale (Downey Jr.). Told in a framented, frenzied style with multiple flashbacks, rapid cutting and eighteen different kinds of film stock we get to follow the pair on their misadventures as the law enforcement net closes in on them led by psycho hunter extraordinaire Jack Scegnetti (Sizemore) a cop with almost as many emotional problems as Mickey and Mallory.
It’s violent, controversially so, a film that has been the subject of a high profile lawsuit that attempted to blame it directly for a real life murder being carried out (the case was thrown out in 2001) and that had a peculiar journey to home video in the UK that saw it being shown on television before it had been released on video because it’s original home video release date coincided with the horrendous Dunblane shootings in Scotland which clearly made the studio and no doubt the BBFC more than a little nervous about releasing a film which prominently features handgun based massacres. Putting the controversy to one side though, does the film live up to it’s aim to satirise the global obsession with serial killers and the media’s tendency to turn them into grotesque celebrities?
In this respect I’d have to say yes, it succeeds completely. Downey Jr.’s turn as Wayen Gale is a concentration of the kind of attitudes that propogate the glorification of these sorts of criminals by viewing them as ratings opportunities rather than human beings carrying out horrendous atrocities on other human beings. Tommy Lee Jones’ prison warden McClusky is just as guilty, viewing Mickey and Mallory as his own ticket to fame and fortune (or maybe just plain old notoriety). Scegnetti, sick as he clearly is, has already garnered minor celebrity status from his previous escapades hunting down serial killers. They are all part of the same sickly, corrupt system.
Where the film falls down in my opinion is in its apparent assertion that too much violence on TV has played a vital role in Mickey and Mallory’s decline into brutality. There are a number of scenes that suggest declining standards in TV, violence in movies and being subjected to news footage of mankind’s atrocities committed against itself are at least partially to blame for their current behaviour. This standpoint seems fair enough and it’s certainly a question worth asking, but when you as a film maker illustrate this point in a film that is so violent with clips from other violent films that you yourself are responsible for (Stone wrote both Scarface and Midnight Express, clips from which are used in this context) then it becomes difficult to take that message seriously and more importantly it makes the film start to reek of hypocrisy.
That said, the scenes exploring how Mickey and Mallory met, flashbacks designed in the style of a fifties sitcom which show us the circumstances in which Mallory has grown up, being sexually abused by her father (Rodney Dangerfield in a frankly outstanding performance oozing darkness) while her mother resolutely fails to protect her, are excellent and provide a plausible explanation as to how she could become the sort of person she has, not to mention fall in with a man like Mickey. Mickey on the other hand is happy to admit he is simply the titular Natural Born Killer, a man who only feels really free and at ease with the world when he’s taking lives. Between them they seem to represent the nature versus nurture argument that has raged among psychologists and criminoligists forever and in combination seem to suggest that Stone comes down squarely in the middle, suggesting that either route is possible for those who end up on the serial killer road.
I’m still in two minds about Natural Born Killers. The performances from the ensemble cast are excellent and it’s certainly an interesting film from a technical standpoint. Its genuine rush of intense images and fast cutting (not to mention mixed media) provides a rich tapestry of symbolism and feels like something of an achievement even if sometimes it threatens to become style over substance. It does work really well though, especially with the Trent Reznor supervised soundtrack that combines Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen and Rage Against the Machine with classical pieces and all sorts to create an aural tapestry as rich and varied (and frequently sinister) as the frantic, almost psychedelic images. I do think it isn’t one hundred percent clear in its own message though and that it suffers for this substantially. I also can’t help but wonder what Tarantino would have done with it, how he envisaged it in his own mind as he was setting it down on paper and what he felt had been so fundamentally lost in translation in Stone’s version. An interesting addition to Stone’s catalogue and definitely worth watching I personally don’t think that Natural Born Killers lives up to its infamy.