Oliver Stone’s films are unmistakably filtered through his observation and participation in some of the darker experiences of American history. Stone describes his life in an interview with David Breskin as “…a series of many defeats…from an early age. Divorce. Institutionalization. Insecurities, fears, failures, the army, Vietnam.” The filmmaker regards the Vietnam War as a significant and pivotal event, which enabled his “going to the dark side” and seeing “the underside of life”. Like many natural born storytellers, Stone is a self-mythologizing figure, and it would be a mistake to read too much into fragmented sound bites or to distill the entirety of his work to a reactionary political stance. Yet the frequency with which national idealism and personal failure appear in his films, suggests that the stories closest to his heart and mind ride along a wavelength of the inevitable relationship between those two themes.
As such, Stone’s film-vision of historical reality is often unapologetically personal. To some viewers and critics, this seems to be a contradiction in terms. Yet to others, the filmmaker achieves a greater degree of honesty by embracing subjectivity and individual experience. His movies frequently use the events of the real world to shape a credible and convincing version of that world, but they rarely ask us to believe that the film’s perspective is the only one worth seeing. If anything, his trademark revisionism (the popular height of which was the conspiratorial JFK) seems to create and encourage a spirit of active inquiry amongst viewers.
This kind of investigative storytelling often involves the rise, fall, and resurrection of American myths, and some of Stone’s early work, such as Salvador, explicitly places media figures at the center of stories that are at least in part about bearing witness to history, however strongly revised. Robert Richardson’s cinematography in JFK bursts beyond the burned-into-the-brain sequence of frames from the Zapruder film and creates a dizzying and historically convincing montage of 1963 Dealey Plaza. By and large, Stone succeeds in making movies about media through reflexively adopting the form and function of a journalist, and then turning that form on its head in order to wring opinion from observation. To varying degrees, the media figures (and other “information crusaders”) in these films could be read as surrogates of Stone himself.
Natural Born Killers (1994) is the filmmaker’s most direct statement about the relationship between media mythmaking and individual agency. In Natural Born Killers, the media no longer preserves and produces impressions of history. Instead, the media sees all. The media is all. The failure of the individual is the now the result of the media’s upheaval of ideals, in which virtue has been replaced by the promise of fame and total gratification. To achieve an American dream is to give oneself over to this poisonous process of consumption.
The film’s unlikely idols are Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), mass murdering anti-heroes, who are repeatedly positioned within the film as being on the path to Hell. Stone follows suit and approaches the material like a man trapped (alternately as practitioner and witness) in a doomed and overstimulated media account of these killers. Working again with cinematographer Richardson, Stone transforms Quentin Tarantino’s story about murderous lovers on the run into a road movie fueled by knowing reflexivity, allusion and distortion. Tarantino’s original script suggested a pastiche of the dramatic situation of Honeymoon Killers, Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde and/or True Romance, in which a passionate relationship withstands, and possibly deepens through, violent activity. Stone, however, pushes the script into an aggressive dark comedy that showily uses cinema and television techniques to indict a venal media culture that profits from bloodlust as forcefully as it resists insight. Stone creates the film’s environment of total media awareness by intensifying and exaggerating the style of film and television storytelling. His organization of that omniscient media perspective empowers the mythmakers only to tear them apart and expose their demons through over the top satire.
There is little doubt that the reckless American media culture of the early-to-middle 1990s had a profound effect on Stone’s decision to tell the story in this manner. Arriving in cinemas in the wake (or in the midst) of hot button news items and scandals involving the Menendez Brothers, the LAPD and Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, Tonya Harding, Susan Smith, and others, Natural Born Killers should have been widely received as a perfectly timed peek into the media machine’s dark heart. Perhaps the most explicit indication of this within the film is the constant presence of “demons” (nearly every major character has an onscreen demon counterpart). The movie repeatedly breaks away from present action in order to actualize the inner demons that lurk in and around stories of mayhem. Even though the effect is goofy, and perhaps too closely associated with popular music video techniques of the era, the impact of the demon material is to counterpoint the so-called sophisticated packaging of news stories that report even the darkest material. Any critically thinking audience member should question the motives of a reporter doggedly attempting to get good footage for his or her reel at the expense of an unfolding tragedy. For that matter, the audience member is also complicit. At what point does attention to current events become an unhealthy devotion to the grisly and macabre?
The awareness of press and reportage within Natural Born Killers is as heightened and unrealistic as the film’s wild cinematography and editing. In the scene that introduces the audience to Mickey, there are several instances of the all-seeing media. The scene takes place within a small diner that has circular windows framed like two large eyes looking in on the action. While seated at a diner counter, Mickey reads his own press coverage in a newspaper report, and the television near the counter flashes an image of his demon. His wife, Mallory, dances freely to the music from a jukebox until some cartoonish good old boys enter the diner to harass her. At this point, the song on the jukebox (“Shitlist” by L7) begins to provide soundtrack to the ensuing murder of these men. During her revenge, Mallory sings the chorus of the song to her victim, marking him as contemptible and deserving of death. The camera follows behind a bullet and a blade, providing the audience with first-person perspectives of murder. After they kill all but one of the employees and patrons of the diner (their calling card, as we soon find out) Mickey and Mallory dance romantically while an image of fireworks is projected onto the wall.
Efficiently establishing narrative and stylistic premises for the movie that follows, this opening scene both separates the killer protagonists from motives and origins as well as reproduces their desires through fragmented aural and visual allusions. The effect for audience members, now first-hand witnesses to the crimes, is curiosity about what created these monsters. This manipulation of causality fits within another of Stone’s fixations in the film—the way in which pop psychology too conveniently explains and excuses immorality and bad decision-making. Stone seems to go back and forth between, on one hand, placing some degree of trust in how troubling past events have the power to shape a misguided present, and on the other, sending up these excuses as emblematic of a society that seeks placation and exoneration, however undeserved.
The next major sequence within the film illustrates this social problem of root causes using a television format that is popularly known to pacify and turn life into twenty-minute doses of unreality: the sitcom. Early within Natural Born Killers, it is clear that Stone and Richardson are employing a wide variety of film formats to hyperactively cover the action. Yet the I Love Mallory section of the film is unique in adopting the look of a sitcom for an extended period of time. The show is faithful to the form, including a garish domestic color scheme and prominent laugh track. However, the content of the sequence is an abusive household. Rodney Dangerfield plays Mallory’s father, and his standard comic persona is sharply juxtaposed with the monstrous behavior of the character. He sexually and verbally abuses his daughter. The combination of that material with the classic Dangerfield delivery and constant laugh track creates a uniquely nightmarish environment that suggests Mallory’s life prior to meeting Mickey was a series of traumatic events. There is no single justification for the ironic presentation of the back-story, but the connection of her horror show home life with a silly television show format achieves at least two significant functions within the film: It calls to attention the inanity and emptiness of one of the most popular kinds of media escapism and reinforces the extent to which Mallory is a result of that sort of pacifying product.
Natural Born Killers also uses the I Love Mallory sequence to set up its own internal system of reference and allusion. Earlier in the film, Stone shows the audience a shot of Dangerfield, in character but out of context, prior to the sitcom sequence. Stone then horrifyingly violates the audience’s expectation to laugh at the comedian when the vile character appears and abuses his family. In this way, Stone ensnares us in the process of obediently taking our cues from recognizable popular culture icons, only to pull the rug out from under us with his hellish sitcom.
The sitcom ends after Mickey arrives at Mallory’s house in a “meet cute” and they escape together. Before we see that Mickey has ended up in jail, the film briefly cuts to a highly popular and recognizable product advertisement. The Coca-Cola Polar Bear television commercial effectively interrupts the violent disorder of Mallory’s home life, just as it would interrupt any other television content. The darkly comic tonal shift is intentionally provocative, and had the Coca-Cola Company known of the intended use, it is doubtful that they would have allowed their advertisement to appear in Stone’s film. However, Stone is not simply playing the provocateur. Like the use of the sitcom format, the inclusion of a memorable advertising campaign reminds the audience members that we are victim to the brainwashing power of television, and the temporary relief we might feel from the effect of seeing those polar bears is yet another small but telling sign of the emotional attachment we share with the content being served to us. Stone varies and repeats his Coca-Cola commentary a couple of additional times in the film, with Mallory taking a gulp from a soda can as she finishes pleasuring Mickey during a jailhouse visit and a later iteration of the commercial as the film approaches its climax.
Another tendency of advertising and marketing that Stone draws upon throughout the film is the ideal self-concept. At different emotional high points in the film (albeit with less frequency than the demon cutaways) the live action transforms into hand drawn animation. Mickey and Mallory both have animated counterparts that enter the film when their physical and emotional limits are tested. Mickey appears in physically undefeatable, superhuman animated form as he escapes from prison, after being enabled in his live action getaway by a snake that will also become a powerful motif within the movie. His rescue of Mallory takes place in the same home setting from I Love Mallory, though the sitcom aesthetic is now behind them. Strengthened through their commitment to one another, they murder her parents and take to what Mickey calls “the road to hell in front of us”. He says this at their outdoor marriage ceremony, which takes place on a bridge, in a rare natural setting removed from visible popular culture representations. Then, the film shifts once again to animation as their blood combines and falls from their clasped hands and into the water below. Though it is the product of violence, their wedded bliss is formally idealized.