“Killing you and what you represent is a statement. I’‘m not a hundred percent sure exactly what it’‘s saying…” -Mickey Knox
Paranoid. Pretentious. Polarizing. Say what you will about Oliver Stone –- the man’s got moxie. Whether it’s combat (Platoon) or capitalism (Wall Street), politics (Nixon) or pigskin (Any Given Sunday), he vigorously assails American mores. Stone is a warrior-poet. And with 1994’s Natural Born Killers his tryst with social satire exploded like a Molotov cocktail; birthing controversy that still smolders 15 years hence. Expanded from Quentin Tarantino’s original short story Natural Born Killers has emerged as Stone’s most vehement film. His pedigree secure, the Hollywood maverick turned on the system itself; tarring sensationalism, public bloodlust, and judicial entropy, seemingly with the same brush.
Stone’s canvas is the American Southwest; his subjects, Mickey and Mallory Knox. They’re young lovers on the lam whose capricious killing spree seduces a nation. Their tale is spun through a mosaic of flashbacks and TV narratives meant to reflect our culture of voyeurism. It’s an experiment that demands daring performances. With dead aim, Stone casts a quirky and disarming Woody Harrelson (fresh off the floor of Cheers) in the muscular role of Mickey Knox. “I love Woody but he’s a little crazy,” laughs the director, who saw “violence” in his leading man.
Indeed, Harrelson’s sparkling contradictions create one of the most affecting antagonists since Hannibal Lecter. As his muse, Stone draws on the beguiling Juliette Lewis (Kalifornia) whose bravura here should have earned her an Oscar. Scarred by abuse, Mallory is both victim and predator; a playful little scorpion as volatile as the American psyche.
Natural Born Killers opens with I Love Mallory; a faux sitcom that brazenly cloaks rumors of incest under audience laugh tracks. In a stunning twist, comedian Rodney Dangerfield mutates Mallory’s father into a monster so hideous, his murder elicits cheers. When Mickey arrives –- to thunderous applause –- we see escapism in Mallory’s eyes. It may be aberrant, but there’s a love story here streaking through the grime.
Their elopement spawns road wreckage not seen since Bonnie and Clyde and serves to introduce a new breed of parasite, led by Aussie shock-jock Wayne Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.). Host of American Maniacs Gale is Geraldo-like; an opportunist whose garish coverage brokers the couple’s international stardom. He’s also the film’s central parody: A histrionic egoist who cares only for ratings. “I was there! When the shit hit the fan in Grenada, I saw it all go down!” He brags on-air, before glancing off-camera to read the crowd’s reaction. Stone uses Gale to draw laughs while demonizing media hypocrisy. He even inserts a Coca Cola ad afterward, to underscore the primacy of commercialism. It’s all a show… and it’s spellbinding.
Natural Born Killers is Oliver Stone’s fight song, his catharsis. And it pulses with chest-thumping libido. Restored to its intended 122-minutes, the director’s cut includes over 150 segments famously pulled by the MPAA before the film’s theatrical release. It’s an acid trip so rife with imagery that it’s impossible to assimilate in just one viewing. Stone experiments with shifting POV, deploying 18 different film formats; rear projections to capture alternating consciousness; superimposed landscapes; and Herculean editing by Brian Berdan and Hank Corwin. It took nearly a year to splice and earned Stone nods for Best Director.
This is an artist at the apex of his powers. Is it exploitation? That depends who you ask. “One can intellectualize it ...or just gawk at its ugliness”, says Tommy Lee Jones, alluding to Picasso’s anti-war mural Guernica. Jones would know, having studied satire in preparation for his raving caricature of a duck-tailed Warden McClusky.
Ever the provocateur, Stone pushed the cast farther than they’d ever gone, even injuring his DP in the process. Downey likens the set to pagan Rome. Shot in 56 days, actors and crew ate, slept and partied together. In fact, much of the film’s hallucinatory hyper-realism emerged while scouting cross-country for locations (including one Navajo scene born of Stone’s own psychedelic brush with the law).
But sex and drugs are nothing without rock ‘n’ roll. Lucky for Stone the ‘90s marked an evolution in audio, as soundtracks grew to include sophisticated segues and overdubs. Under the sure hands of Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) the music on Natural Born Killers moves around its action onscreen like a shadow. From Leonard Cohen’s narcotic “Waiting for a Miracle” to Bob Dylan’s lonesome turn on “You Belong to Me” there are dystopian anthems for each of Stone’s many moods. Ballads like “Sweet Jane” elicit starry-eyed romance, while Peter Gabriel and Punjabi vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan infuse the landscape with haunting mysticism.
Songs are used to such effect that they are, at times, transcendent. Mickey’s desert freak-out stings with desperation under the spare “Something I Can Never Have” –- a Reznor original that penetrates not just the soul of a film, but of its flawed protagonists. An album this good should be celebrated. And so it was, selling half a million records on its way to Gold status.
There is seldom a quiet moment in Natural Born Killers as Stone lays siege to his audience. Its chaos comes in many forms, but Stone wars against violence as a gimmick, making it clear when he wants us to meet its consequences. For all the film’s horror, images of Joliet Correctional Center and her real-life inmates are its most searing. And yet beneath this barbed exterior are bits of hilarity, ready to rise at every turn. From Steven Wright’s deadpan shrink to Downey’s misplaced prison hugs, there’s as much reason to laugh as grimace.
Fans will feast on Stone’s wry commentary, as he quotes Mexican poet Octavio Paz, imparting his own set of pessimisms. The man seems as passionate now as in 1994; a stormy impresario whose work, while self-important, is also unmatched. A second DVD brims with bonus material, including the exposé NBK Evolution which predicts a quicker end to our heroes in today’s post-Twitter prism. Also featured, is notorious shock-jock Steve Dunleavy (A Current Affair) who plays yin to Stone’s yang, boasting of a lucrative news era which values scandal as currency.
Even risible “stars” like Joey Buttafuoco and Tila Tequila guest to mixed effect, excoriating the same perverse paradigm that cemented their celebrity. For the completist, deleted scenes include Denis Leary’s subversive shtick and a hilarious bit with the muscle-bound Hun twins. There’s even an alternate ending, which serves our villains their just desserts.
Mickey and Mallory are knighted by trauma; dipped in the same tragic currents that will eventually carry them away. And Stone means to warn us we might be next. When the couple is confronted by a medicine man (Russell Means, Last of the Mohicans) Stone imposes some literal –- and rather heavy-handed –- rhetoric. We’re all guilty, he argues; glassy-eyed spectators, hungry for violence and idly complicit. It’s quite an indictment. Still, many wonder if, by lionizing Mickey and Mallory, Stone isn’t dishing up (and profiting from) the same pulp he pretends to abhor.
Some critics deride Natural Born Killers as Hollywood’s ‘most expensive student film’ –- a mockery of editorial restraint. Others see it as the auteur’s bare-knuckled triumph. All would agree it’s one of the silver screen’s wildest spectacles. Perhaps Mickey says is best, grinning across at a perplexed Wayne Gale: “Killing you and what you represent is… a statement. I’m not a hundred percent sure exactly what it’s saying.” Alas, satire or stunt Natural Born Killers draws a line in the sand. Grim, funny, and just as relevant today as when it dawned, the film kicks like a shotgun.