“The ancients had visions, we have television.”–Octavio Paz (quote cited by Oliver Stone as one of his inspirations for making Natural Born Killers)
DIRECTED BY: Oliver Stone
FEATURING: , , , Tom Sizemore, Tommy Lee Jones, Rodney Dangerfield
PLOT: Mass murderers (and lovers) Mickey and Mallory stalk the Southwestern U.S., slaughtering innocents who cross their path but always leaving one victim alive to spread their legend. The television show “American Maniacs” tracks their adventures, and they have a large cult of followers. The pair are finally apprehended, but a live television interview scheduled to air after the Super Bowl gives them a narrow window to escape.
- Natural Born Killers was based on a screenplay written by
- Stone originally conceived of the project as an action picture, a simple movie that he could produce as a break from his serious works of social realism, but the script turned much darker as he worked on it.
- Shot in only 56 days, but editing took almost a year. The ultra-fast pacing required almost 3,000 edits.
- According to Oliver Stone. 155 cuts were imposed on the movie by the MPAA in order to receive an “R” rating (a crucial imprimatur for commercial purposes, since many newspapers at the time would not advertise NC-17 or unrated movies). All of this material is restored in the director’s cut. Despite the large number of total cuts, the restored footage only amounts to about 3-4 minutes of screen time.
- A number of murders, mostly committed by teenagers, were said to be inspired by the film. In 1995, convenience store clerk Patsy Byers, who was paralyzed for life after being shot by a pair of young lovers who had dropped acid and watched Natural Born Killers all night on a continuous loop, instigated a product liability lawsuit against distributor Time Warner and Oliver Stone on the grounds that they “knew, or should have known that the film would cause and inspire people […] to commit crimes…” After a series of court hearings, the case was finally disposed of in 2001 on First Amendment grounds.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Natural Born Killers is about the power of images, making isolating a single frame from this nonstop barrage of psychedelic American carnage quite the challenge. Nonetheless, we located one picture which encapsulates the movie’s theme perfectly. Since Oliver Stone is not exactly noted for his subtlety, he garishly splashes his key insights over his characters’ tight tank-tops when a Navajo shaman sees the pair through spiritual eyes: words appear on Harrelson’s torso announcing him as a “demon,” then, even more tellingly, reading “too much t.v.”
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As if the story was being viewed through a remote control with a stuck channel button where every station is fixated on telling the story of celebrity killers Mickey and Mallory, the visual style of Natural Born Killers changes every few seconds. Disorientation, the substituted and enhanced reality of manipulated images, is the baseline reality of this ever-shifting nightmare vision of an America trapped inside a banal, violence-obsessed TV tube.
Original trailer for Natural Born Killers
COMMENTS: There is no way to reasonably discuss Natural Born Killers without discussing the controversy that followed it like an exit wound follows a bullet. There is also no reason to, since raising these exact controversies is the movie’s very purpose for being. Oliver Stone’s brilliantly stylized satire attacks the way that the media, and television in particular, irresponsibly and casually celebrates violence, turning serial killers like Manson and Starkweather into celebrities. From the outset, however, it was clear that there was a level of paradox, if not outright hypocrisy, in Stone’s approach. Natural Born Killers‘ aestheticization, and even poeticization, of violence glamorizes murder so effectively that the film becomes disturbing in ways the director never intended. The movie’s violence is graphic, but ironic and ultra-stylized. Bullets hover in midair, taunting their targets before burrowing into their skulls. A degenerate is clobbered in the head with a tire iron to a “Looney Toons” soundtrack complete with the sound of tweeting birds. The effect trivializes the suffering of the victims to an absurd degree, which is the satirical point. However, it is obvious to the most casual observer that a large segment of the viewing audience—and perhaps on some level the director, who has invested so much of his own imagination into these fantastic scenarios—finds all of this a sado turn-on. To a large extent, the movie’s own confusion as to whether Mickey and Mallory are monsters to be feared or antiheroes to be cheered is the secret of the film’s dangerous power.
Stone sketches out the killers-on-the-run scenario in a fever, working largely by instinct. Film stock switches from black and white to color to washed-out Super 8 to animation, and the angles are always slanted to the horizontal. When Mickey and Mallory relax inside a hotel, the world of images rushes on outside: through their window we see wolves howling, fascists marching, chainsaws buzzing. A few frames of demonic faces or a bloody decapitated man rising from his chair interrupt the movie, as does the occasional Coke commercial. The atmosphere is Stoned, for sure. The barely controlled rush of images isn’t purposeless, however. It’s meant to evoke the short-attention span reality of cable television, our ability to switch from a sex scene to a slaughter to a celebrity scandal with the distracted click of a button, a stream of channel changing that has become our new consciousness. The film’s formal relationship to television could not be made any clearer than in the incredibly disturbing sitcom parody “I Love Mallory,” a fantastic misremembering of Mallory’s childhood wherein her abusive father (memorably played by a slovenly Rodney Dangerfield) hurls insults and makes horrifyingly bad incest jokes, set to an incongruously nightmarish laugh track. Is this sequence simply cheap irony? Is Stone commenting (as some academics later claimed) on the way sitcoms reinforce a coercive patriarchal structure? (Think of Jackie Gleason’s eternal comic threat of violence, “one of these days, Alice…”) I think that Stone’s point is that Mallory’s generation is incapable of processing their own lives except through the filter of television’s hyperreality. TV mashes reality to a pulp, allowing us the luxury of indulging our worst fantasies, and then escaping with a click; we can switch from the salacious appeal of incest to low family comedy as our whim dictates. Dissonance becomes meaningless; agony becomes comedy.
But Stone’s entire critique rests on infirm and contradictory ground. Natural Born Killers is part of the incessant stream of media, not something outside it (especially after the movie rights were sold to pay cable). Cinema is not a special, privileged form of audiovisual contemplation and commentary in a way that TV is not. In fact, with the squeamish objections of advertisers out of the way and almost no restraints left on the amount of sex and violence Stone can cram in, NBK is much more effective at glorifying murder than TV ever could be. This may be an inevitable feature of the subject matter, to be sure. But Stone seems to lose focus on his attitudes to his characters, as well. What are we supposed to think of Mickey and Mallory? Surely we aren’t meant to worship them like the crowds of teenage fans who hold signs saying “Murder Me Mickey!” and give reporters quotes like “I’m not saying I believe in mass murder… but if I was a mass murderer, I’d be Mickey and Mallory.” Yet, Stone himself is more than half in love with them and their Bonnie-and-Clyde antics: the mythology of pure tragic young love against the old corrupt world. He wants to reform the lovers rather than throw them under the wheels, but he isn’t sure how, and he ends up lionizing their murderous ways. The pair are supposed to have an epiphany after being bitten by rattlesnakes (obscure symbols of knowledge): “love conquers the demon.” But their subsequent behavior doesn’t make that clear; despite being incarcerated, they continue to kill whenever given the chance. During his interview with Wayne Gale, Mickey is allowed to rhapsodize at length, mostly about the nobility of his calling as a “natural born killer.” He quotes the Bible (“except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit”), and says he has no regrets. He talks about people who need to die while the camera focuses on Tommy Lee Jones’ sadistic warden, who hypocritically uses violence withing the system, his own perceived role as fate’s own enforcer, and his “moment of realization” that life is an illusion. This monologue is heroic and spiritualistic, and it comes at a point where convention suggests the movie’s message should be placed. A large part of the point of the film is (or should be) that Mickey and Mallory are not actually evil; they are poor dumb victims of circumstance, products of the confluence of American culture and unbearable abuse. Making Mickey into a mystical spokesman for the beauty and necessity of homicide kills that viewpoint.
Given the foregoing, it’s no real surprise that teenage lovers Sarah Edmondson and Benjamin Darras saw themselves in Mickey and Mallory, and were inspired to set out on their own thrill-killing spree after repeatedly watching Natural Born Killers under the influence of LSD. Or that the film was a favorite of the Columbine high school killers, who used “NBK” as code for the massacre they planned to carry out, and dreamed about who would direct the movie based on their exploits. Or that a 14-year old who decapitated a classmate claimed he did so “because he wanted to be famous. Like the Natural Born Killers.” Or that a 17-year old who murdered his mother and stepsister watched the film ten times in the week before the killing, and shaved his head and purchased round glasses to look more like his idol Mickey.
Stone, and the film’s fans in general, have sometimes struggled to put together a coherent response to these incidents, and to the critics who object that the film hypocritically celebrates violence far more than it condemns it. (In fairness to Stone, he may have been hampered in what he could say before 2001 by the fact that litigation was ongoing). Tommy Lee Jones says “those who say a work of art is an invitation to violent anti-social behavior are not very bright,” which is not even true on its face (some works of art, like antisemitic propaganda in Nazi Germany, are precisely intended to incite violence), as well as missing a crucial point: works of art which do not intend to incite violence, but superficially seem to do so, will inevitably be seen by not-very-bright people. The Byers lawsuit stated, not that Stone intended to incite violence, but that he “knew, or should have known” that the film would inspire violence, an argument that is hard to disagree with. A wikipedia encyclopediast suggests that “Stone has continually maintained that the film is a satire on how serial killers are adored by the media for their horrific actions and that those who claim that the violence in the film itself is a cause of societal violence miss the point of the film,” an objection that makes little sense. Every halfway smart person can see the point of the film—it’s insulting to suggest that any critic could overlook the simplistic satire at play here—but there’s no logical disjunction between those two premises. There is actual evidence that the film is a cause of social violence, despite being unquestionably a satire.
The easiest case for evasion of responsibility on the filmmakers’ part is to point out that each of the real-life killers were mentally unhinged, like Mickey and Mallory themselves. If this movie hadn’t directly inspired their actions, they would have likely found another excuse to indulge their sadistic impulses. The idea that films or other works of art do not inspire violence or other crimes, however, is a losing argument, as well as a self-defeating one (as well as a direct contradiction of NBK‘s thesis). If art can’t inspire bad acts in the real world, then it can’t produce good ones either, and there is little reason for us to pay attention to it. The winning argument is the one the Louisiana Court of Appeals cited: “the constitutional protection accorded to the freedom of speech and of the press is not based on the naive belief that speech can do no harm, but on the confidence that the benefits society reaps from the free flow and exchange of ideas outweigh the costs society endures by receiving reprehensible or dangerous ideas.” Although we should choose our words carefully, we should not be afraid to speak out for fear that our words may be misinterpreted. In a free society, people have a right to make horrifying, dangerous statements. Let me rephrase that: in a free society, people have a duty to make horrifying, dangerous statements.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… a heavy duty acid trip, quite possibly the most hallucinatory and anarchic picture made at a major Hollywood studio in at least 20 years… a psychedelic documentary about the American cult of sex, violence and celebrity.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)
“‘Killers’ is intended as a gonzo critique of the mass media and, by extension, of the bloodthirsty legions of couch potatoes whose prurient taste guarantees that the garbage rises to the top of the charts. But the film doesn’t make it as a piece of social criticism. Primarily this is because the movie’s jittery, psychedelic style is so obviously a kick for Stone to orchestrate. Bloody, pulpy excess is his thing; it’s what he does best.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Natural Born Killers (1994)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
FILM;With Video, ‘Cut!’ Needn’t Be the Director’s Final Word – New York Times article on the phenomenon of director’s cuts, using Natural Born Killers and Stone’s comments as one of the illustrations
Natural born copycats – The Guardian‘s report on the NBK copycat murders, with Oliver Stone’s response
List of alleged Natural Born Killers copycat crimes – Wikipedia article detailing murders with a connection to Natural Born Killers
Byers v. Edmondson – The Louisiana Court of Appeals opinion finally dismissing Patsy Byers lawsuit against the makers of Natural Born Killers
MOVIES : Natural Born Actor : Comic titan Rodney Dangerfield is getting respect for his performance as a hateful dad in ‘Natural Born Killers’ – Interview with comedian Dangerfield about his first dramatic role
Killer Instinct – Producer Jane Hamsher’s tell-all account of the making of the film, which exposes Hollywood politics and paints celebrities like Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino in a bad light
DVD INFO: Natural Born Killers was recognized as a cult movie from the very beginning, and has always received reverential treatment on home video. The Warner 2-disc Director’s Cut DVD (buy) is the standard among multiple versions and reissues. It contains a thorough commentary by Stone along with a three-minute introduction to the film by the director. The disc of supplemental features includes a 28-minute documentary on the controversy surrounding the picture’s release, six deleted scenes, an alternate ending, Stone’s 11-minute interview with Charlie Rose, and “NBK Evolution: How Would It All Go Down Now?,” a mini-documentary about the evolution of mass media since NBK‘s release. Buyers also get a 48-page booklet.
NBK received an updated Blu-ray (buy) in December 2014. It was worth the wait for dedicated fans, as this release includes all the special features of the DVD, plus both the theatrical and director’s cuts of the film and a new supplement on the editing process. It comes in collectible “Diamond Luxe” packaging.
Natural Born Killers is also frequently repackaged as part of several different multi-movie sets: as a “screenplay by Tarantino” Blu-ray double feature with Tony Scott’s excellent (but fairly conventional) True Romance (buy), as part of two Stone Blu-ray trilogies, one including Any Given Sunday and JFK (buy) and the other Any Given Sunday and Alexander Revisited (buy), or as a four film collection with Alexander, Any Given Sunday, and Heaven and Earth (buy).
(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who said, with some understatement, that it “has some weird marks definitely in it, considering for one the extreme, hyper stylized pop-art editing, constantly shifting it in a deliriously absurd feeling with its schizophrenic constant change in style.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)