It Will All Be Yours

'Natural Born Killers' and the Dead End of Allusion

by Thomas Britt

23 September 2010


Mickey especially sounds like an outside voice of media criticism.

The film connects the media imagery from the film’s first half with the wordiness of the second half when Mickey philosophizes about his victims, saying “a lot of people [are] walking around out there, already dead”. The accompanying visual material is a black and white shot of a 1950s family, gathered around a television watching Mickey’s present interview. This is an interesting juxtaposition that raises the question of whether television’s zombifying effect has been around as long as the technology itself, rather than being solely a modern condition. Stone follows this insight with one of the film’s only other “cracks” that lets light in, as Mickey describes Mallory’s mollifying effect, which is considerably more lasting and genuine than that of a television program. He says, “You know the only thing that kills a demon? Love. That’s why I know that Mallory’s my salvation. She was teaching me how to love…It was just like being in the Garden of Eden.” Having been removed from Mallory’s touch for a year, Mickey seems to truly realize the meaning of love, even if his Garden of Eden allusion conveniently omits the Fall of Man from the tale. Of course, Gale trivializes Mickey’s most (perhaps only) earnest statement by turning it into an act-break tagline: “Only love can kill the demon. Hold that thought.” The film hilariously cuts once again to the Coca-Cola Polar Bears advertisement and additional vintage shots of families being pacified by their televisions.

Following the commercial break, Mickey especially sounds like an outside voice of media criticism. He attacks Gale fairly directly, saying, “From where I’m standing, you’re an ape. You’re not even an ape, you’re a media person…you’re buying and selling fear.” Even after that upbraiding, Gale does not realize that he’s being taken for a ride when Mickey sarcastically provides the line he knows Gale wants the most: “I’m a natural born killer.” More insightful by far is the prison population, who react to this cue by commencing a riot.

There is a kind of truth to Mickey’s statement that he has “evolved” beyond Gale. Yes, Mickey is a mass murderer, and no critically thinking viewer would mistake him for an out-and-out hero. However, Stone presents Scagnetti, McClusky and Gale as openly aspiring to become famous through the exploitation of Mickey and Mallory’s murderous activities. Mickey does not (or at least no longer does) share this quest for power and fame, while the “civilized” characters continue to descend into criminal activity in order to advance their march towards notoriety. Many of the officers and media figures around convicted murderer Alieen Wuornos gave in to the same temptation, and the impact of their graft and greed on the outcome on her trials can never be fully determined or rectified. Wuornos was executed in 2002. In contrast to the Scagnetti, McClusky, and Gale’s intensifying demons, Mickey and Mallory want nothing more than to escape and leave their demons behind. Unfortunately, although they have shed their desire for fame, it is at this point impossible to inoculate others against their charismatic, media-propelled violent streak. A final strike is all but certain.

Heretofore in Natural Born Killers, Stone has used mixed formats and media accounts to create idealized versions of the killer. However, after Mickey triumphs within the interview, he breaks free within the actual story world in a manner at odds with the realistic setting. This staging is likely another way in which Stone is indicating Mickey’s evolution. His shackles are off and he walks around the cell freely, telling jokes and interacting with the television crew and prison guards. It is as if his idealized self has stepped out of the box and amassed total power. He uses jokes and donuts to appease the crowd in the room, and then capitalizes on their distractedness and his own growing omnipotence for the film’s final act and his own act of escape. Killing and/or maiming his minders, Mickey seizes control. Whereas previous scenes have used lawmen and journalists to symbolically and literally direct the action, Mickey becomes the director and orders Gale and the television crew to document his rescue of Mallory. Mickey realizes that in this world, for these people, television is the ultimate witness.

The images that Gale’s camera and Stone’s cameras capture during the prison riot prove to be some of the most convincing combat footage Stone or any other narrative filmmaker has achieved in recent fiction cinema. Although most of the film is intentionally over-the-top and unreal, Stone jars us with the authenticity of the climactic carnage, which is certainly this film’s strongest evocation of his remembered Vietnam. Mallory’s reentrance to the film plays upon the film’s system of internal allusion, as L7’s “Shitlist” reappears to provide the soundtrack for killing on a grand scale. Like Mickey, Mallory also shifts from an idealized self to an empowered actual self, as the film crosscuts between her animated form and her live-action form as she temporarily subdues her resurgent attacker, Jack Scagnetti.

Another media personality joins the commentary at this point in the film, as Antonia Chavez (Melinda Renna), a TV anchor, takes the at-home viewers “live to Batongo Penitentiary, where Wayne Gale continues his interrupted interview in the middle of a full-scale riot.” Her news director cuts to the live footage just in time to broadcast several murders as Mickey finally rescues Mallory and Gale, who despite the bloodshed and deathly stakes around him, continues to self-aggrandize about the footage they are capturing. Gale tries to once again selfishly shape history, attempting to romanticize the moment of Mickey and Mallory’s reunion for the at-home viewers. Yet for viewers of Stone’s film, there is a break from Gale’s cheap and cynical perspective. Stone, for a final time, injects a genuine degree of romance and redemption, juxtaposing their long-awaited kiss with earlier moments of bliss (such as their outdoor wedding) to which we were witnesses. Although this powerfully asserts the otherwise satirical film’s belief in an ideal form of love, and the hope that that ideal can triumph over personal demos, Stone is careful not to overindulge and cuts back to the satire as Scagnetti’s dying gurgle interrupts the sweet moment. Mallory breaks from the kiss to blow him away.

Finally, the film actualizes its panopticon motif by cutting to McClusky in an all-seeing guard tower. He looks at a wall of security images, each of which reveals a different perspective on the total chaos of the riot. Ironically, even with access to all of the visual information he needs to enforce the law, he is powerless to stop the riot because he has lacked the insight to prevent the situation from occurring. The power of the image has failed him because he has misused it. Gale has likewise turned a corner. The journalist has joined Mickey and Mallory in their mission, likely out of self-preservation. Mickey accepts Gale as an ally, only because Gale will aid his escape by doing a stand-up report for the camera as they exit. Also, Mickey appeals to Gale’s penchant for flattery, calling him a “respected journalist”, a phrase Gale echoes as he recites his credentials for the camera. The reporter cites his professional honors (which preposterously include a Golden Globe award) as if asserting his worth to the doomed McClusky and others who resist Mickey and Mallory’s escape. This is a ridiculous turn of events, but as the movie has successfully argued, so too is our idolatry of media figures. Gale shouts, “You are all on camera. We are live” as the killers flee the prison.

In the much-discussed conclusion to the film, Mickey and Mallory kill Gale outside and leave the camera as a witness. Gale, contemptuous to the end, repeats his own variation of Mickey’s words (“love beats the demon”) in order to save himself. His attempt fails. The killers appear to have reverted back to their simpler form, having shed the intellectualism, emotional articulation and super-strength they developed in jail. To consider that they are back to normal is troubling only because “normal” for Mickey and Mallory is a violent road trip to Hell. Their dispatching of Gale is staged like Bonnie and Clyde’s long-delayed revenge, as his death scene is particularly reminiscent of Arthur Penn’s memorable 1967 sendoff for his film’s titular outlaws.

Extending far beyond what Noël Carroll imagined as the “future of allusion” in post-classical and postmodern film, Stone’s media overkill is an ouroboros, cannibalizing itself as a means of purifying the form and the culture it reflects. The coda of the film is a television news montage, ripped from the headlines at the time of production and featuring the Menendez Brothers, Rodney King, Tonya Harding, the Waco siege, Lorena Bobbitt, and O.J. Simpson. Stone follows this final statement of the film’s concern with the way in which media elevates horrific activities and icons of violence with an extended montage of the principal characters’ demons. This exorcism leads to a credit sequence set to Leonard Cohen’s “The Future”, the lyrics of which are again used literally to sound the warning of the film: “I’ve seen the future baby / it is murder.” However there, is a silver lining. Mickey and Mallory appear in a scene of seeming domesticity, traveling in an RV with children. They are the vision of a reformed family, at one with the American landscape and no longer treating it as a road to Hell. It is with cautious uplift, however, that the viewer sees them off.

Natural Born Killers is arguably more relevant today than ever, and not just because media personalities like Geraldo Rivera and Nancy Grace have popular cable crime shows. On a greater level, the proliferation of flat panel televisions and the democratization of the Internet have made Stone’s total media environment a physical reality of global culture. Some viewers and critics received the film as an overly exaggerated and redundant satire in mid-1990s, yet its vision of total media awareness—its future of allusion—has become the largely unquestioned truth of our daily lives. In fact, reformed, middle-class Mickey and Mallory would likely fit comfortably into our present television landscape, in which no corner of the tube, not even something called The Learning Channel, is free of scandal. Mickey and Mallory, meet Jon & Kate.

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