“At its heart, it’s a love story…albeit a relatively strange one” or so says Oliver Stone at the beginning of the latest DVD version of his 1994 murderers-on-the-run masterwork, Natural Born Killers . Fashioned from a script by then hot-eur Quentin Tarantino and styled after the maverick director’s other ‘90s masterpiece, JFK , this combination commentary and cultural coming of age was turned from a exploitation thriller into a demented overview of our media-saturated society, the continuing obsession with crime (not punishment), the profiler like scenarios that jumpstart death sprees, and the always raging internal demons that fuel the carnage of onscreen characters Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis). And then there is the visionary aggrandizement of director Stone himself.
True, if you strip away all the quick cut complexities, if you remove the genre-bending approach to child abuse and molestation (rendered in repugnant ‘50s sitcom style), super cop corruption (policeman Jack Scagnetti - a sober Tom Sizemore - is just as perverse as his internationally idolized prey), and a seemingly ever-present obsession with Native American mysticism, what you wind up with is Badlands with an added satiric element. No matter what Tarantino intended with this screenplay, Stone literally skinned it alive, using the passion felt by Mickey and Mallory (and their violence illustration of same) as the basis for a denouncement of everything tacky and tabloid circa the end of the millennium. By taking the audience to task over its love of sex and violence (which the movie simply drowns in) Stone suggests we’re all Mickey and Mallorys…at least to a point.
The story centers on the couple’s notoriety and the desire by Aussie reporter Wayne Gale (a brilliant Robert Downey Jr.) to get an exclusive story. When Mickey and Mallory get lost in the desert, they come across a shaman who suggests that actual demons run through these antisocial outlaws. Eventually trapped inside a local pharmacy, the duo are captured and taken to jail. There prison warden Dwight McClusky (a Loony Tunes like Tommy Lee Jones) makes a deal with Scagnetti to transport his star prisoners out of the facility (the agreement is that Mickey and Mallory will meet an untimely “accident” along the way). However, their plans are thwarted when Gale lands a post-Super Bowl interview with the pair. Mickey uses the opportunity to escape, grabbing guards and using them as hostages, all in an effort to be reunited with Mallory.
Several things stand out about Natural Born Killers some 15 years later. Like the other great films of the era (Pulp Fiction, The Matrix, Se7en), Stone’s dark comedy about the fall of post-modern man is, today, a much imitated and mimicked effort. Entire subcategories of cinema rose out of this cacophony of images and collage of sounds. It’s also frightening how dated the declarations against the news media (and the public consumption of same) really are. If Mickey and Mallory could see what Fox News and the like have wrought, they wouldn’t waste time plugging police. It would be pundits in their well worn crosshairs. While the level of violence is minor compared to the once new, now old trend of torture porn, and there are still touches of studio stargazing when it comes to the casting (Harrelson, though not the original pick for Mickey, was a hot property back in ‘94), this is a still a subversive effort that remains relevant.
What keeps this otherwise marginalized movie controversial is its desire to let no one off the hook for what these mass murders do. Everyone is to blame in Stone’s film - miscreant parents, apathetic politicians, power mad law enforcement, copycat criminals, as well as the conspiratorial, clueless masses who drink in the couple’s appalling antics and revel in their repugnant hatred for humanity. Of course, Natural Born Killers would argue that Mickey and Mallory only kill “bad” people - men who mash on innocent young girls, rednecks who reject propriety to spew their brazen bigotry on an unresponsive world. But it’s the confrontation with the past and the accidental death of the medicine man that dooms the pair. In fact, what Stone is saying throughout this amped up narrative is that, while driven by fate and a mutual need and necessity, Mickey and Mallory are only as bad as circumstances make them. Murder a pedophile and you’re a hero. Take down a crooked policeman and you’re head for the electric chair.
With this latest DVD expanding Stone’s vision to include much of the gore removed from the initial release of the film, Natural Born Killers becomes more of a royal romantic geek show than ever. While our gun totting terrors spread fear around the countryside, the trail of blood and entrails leads directly to the gates of Hell (or in this case, a prison recreation of same). There is a Pilgrim’s Progress quality to the storyline, Stone taking his characters through various religious and moralistic stages of denial/acceptance before setting them before the great God/Devil itself - TV, in the persona of Downey Jr.‘s Wayne Gale. As perhaps the most important piece of the entire cinematic puzzle, this investigative hack, hoping to score enough ratings to up his profile (and keep his wife and girlfriend happy), represents the ultimate stand for our loathsome lovers, their 15 minutes-plus of fleeting fame - and they play him perfectly.
As with many Special Edition digital packages, this offering is loaded with intriguing added context. Disc two houses an amazing documentary that outlines the controversies surrounding the film, from the various protestations to the unusual court case where Natural Born Killers was accused of “inspiring” the criminal acts of two clearly misguided teens. All the while, Stone puts up his best bruised ego demeanor, taking the assault in stride (perhaps recognizing that any hype, including publicized hate, is good for the box office bottom line). Elsewhere, deleted scenes give us a chance to see cutting room floor performances from Ashley Judd, Denis Leary, and the Barbarian Brothers while a 44 page booklet outlines the various issues surrounding the production, as well as the film’s place in motion picture history.
There is no denying Stone’s artistry and vision, even if you’re nauseated by the images and ideas he’s offering. Just like he did with his take on the Kennedy Assassination (or later look at the Nixon Administration), this is a director who has an uncanny knack for opening up a can of worrisome worms, and then using said bait to lure the truth - or a version thereof - out of hiding. While we are still no closer to discovering the actual facts about what happened that sad day in November ‘63, Natural Born Killers has actually enlightened us toward the addiction and insidious nature of the shock speculative style of reporting that passes for news nowadays. Sadly we learned little from these lessons, turning Stone’s showboating maelstrom into one of the most prophetic films ever. Like the equally enlightened Network, what was once satiric and sly is now too real to be funny. Instead, like a huge neon warning that everyone ignored, Natural Born Killers gets to say I told you so - and yes, it really does have to wallow in our shame and relish it so.