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.
The introduction of television journalist Wayne Gale motivates the fragmentary and mythologized tone…
The introduction of television journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.) and series American Maniacs motivates the fragmentary and mythologized tone that has been building over the course of many formal developments in the first act of the film. The audacious Gale is partially a composite of real life personalities such as Geraldo Rivera and Steve Dunleavy, and his American Maniacs falls recognizably within the Hard Copy-style sensationalism that was popular in the early 1990s. Gale’s opening language within the episode of the show that concerns Mickey and Mallory is an ear-catching but empty allusion: “They tore up the countryside with a vengeance right out of the Bible”. After appearing in sitcom and animated versions in addition to their “real” selves, Mickey and Mallory are now a part of the “cast” of American Maniacs, which hilariously boasts a series of real-life killers as past “stars” in its opening credits. Charles Manson, Charles Whitman, and Richard Ramirez all make appearances, and their names are followed by three onscreen credits for the narcissistic Gale. Stone uses this sly equivalence of Gale with the murderers whom his show celebrates to introduce Gale’s own demonism, which eventually becomes one of the more stunning developments within the film. American Maniacs provides the audience with yet another idealized version of Mickey and Mallory, this time reenacted and denoted with text reading “A Dramatization”. We recognize the show’s series of events to be a pumped up, shinier, and sexier version of the Mickey and Mallory origin story with which we are already familiar through the film’s system of internal allusion.
An editing room scene, which is introduced when the dramatization freezes on screen, uses dialogue to establish Stone’s argument about journalists like Gale and also to comment on Natural Born Killers‘ own system of allusion through repetition and variation. David (Evan Handler), the editor working on the Mickey and Mallory episode, now on the monitors in front of him, says to Gale, “We really raped and pillaged the first show to do this…you can’t cannibalize yourself all the time.” Gale responds, “Repetition works, David”. Unable to resist the reflexive gag, Stone then repeats the line using another take of Downey, Jr. saying the line again, and then continuing, “Do you think that those nitwits out there in zombieland remember anything?” The episode resumes in order to illustrate just how effectively the Mickey and Mallory tale has seduced the zombified TV audience, as an international cast of fans provides testimonials about the murderous couple. The “button” line that brings the sequence to a close is a young many confessing, “If I was a mass murderer, I’d be Mickey and Mallory.”
As the film moves out of Gale’s prepackaged narrative of its killers, it simultaneously moves deeper into psychological and expressionistic evocations of television and media effects. A hotel room scene is besieged with violent imagery, some of which is on a television in the room, and other, more surreal material appearing as a projection within the frame of the room’s window. It is in this scene that the film begins to actualize the troubling omnipresence of the media. The violence that fills the various frames within the room at the Log Cabin Lodge might reflect the mind of the killers. While the material beyond the window is not to be taken literally, the television’s channel-flipping parade of violence, which momentarily takes the form of violent clips from past Stone-scripted films, is a realistic representation of how pervasive such imagery is in popular culture. Whether imagined or real within the world of the story, these representations are everywhere, and their constant presence (especially as designed within the scene and the film at large) begins to suggest an active “looking-in” on the characters, as if the reflections have grown more powerful than their sources. Stone develops this concept in various ways throughout the movie to suggest that these characters are themselves products of allusion, constantly redirecting towards the things that “made them do it”: the demon, parents, and television, included.
Media’s active presence continues to drive the plot, as Mickey and Mallory quarrel and past traumatic events ostensibly spur continued acting out. We see an image of Mickey as an abused boy in the window frame of the hotel. Although the film delays providing a firm context for the image until later, there seems to be a connection between his past confusion amidst violence and his current inability to satisfy his immature desires. Mallory, disgusted with Mickey’s insatiable appetite for more women, kinkier sex, etc., departs from the hotel and drives through the violent streets, which are lined with buildings onto which an image of fire is projected. When she seeks escape in the arms of a gas station attendant (Balthazar Getty) in a late-night garage, the tryst is intercut with images of her past abuse. As with the L7 song in the diner sequence, the soundtrack literalizes her emotions and actions, this time with “Ted, Just Admit It” by Jane’s Addiction. In addition to a cursory connection to Ted Bundy, whose voice appears briefly in the song, the scene enacts the repeated line “sex is violent”, with Mallory killing the gas station attendant for not being an ideal lover and for reminding her of both her father’s and Mickey’s violence.
The introduction of the law to this story of lawlessness is at odds with how such a plot development might occur in a more traditional road movie or action movie. Although many films feature lawmen with serious flaws, secrets, or other forms of corruption, these traits are often part of an antiheroic stance, in which they are still morally superior to the criminals they pursue. This is not the case with Detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore). Scagnetti arrives to investigate the murder of the gas station attendant, and he fantasizes about Mallory, imagining her reflection in the body of a car against which she sat the previous night. He, too, is represented within the media by a book (Scagnetti on Scagnetti) that he authored and promotes to an officer at the scene.
Meanwhile, Mickey and Mallory, having lost their way, find themselves taking a detour into the desert. They meet an old Native American man (played by activist Russell Means) who represents the kind of shamanistic wisdom that appears often in Stone’s work. Although the killers originally come to him seeking gasoline, they seem to fall under the spell of his insight and the palpable spirituality of his dwelling. There are a precious few such moments in the film, when clarity overtakes satire. Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”, another pop song used in a literal way within the film, suggests that “there is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in”. Taking Cohen’s cue, Stone uses these instances to give the characters some depth and suggest the possibility of redemption. The wise man, Warren Red Cloud, sees what Mickey and Mallory for what they are as soon as they arrive. He remarks to his grandson in a native tongue, and words appear across Mickey’s torso: “demon” and “too much TV”. These statements could be read as subtitles for what Red Cloud is saying, and they identify Mickey as noticeably corrupted, even when he is removed from an environment in which media is readily available. Red Cloud says of Mallory, “She has sad sickness, lost in a world of ghosts.” His insight and spiritual authority give empower him to help Mickey and Mallory leave their demons behind, but Mickey awakes from a fevered dream and mistakenly shoots Red Cloud. The domesticated rattlesnake that Red Cloud has set free returns with a vengeance, as hundreds of rattlesnakes threaten and attack Mickey and Mallory before they escape, poisoned by venom and by the knowledge that, as Mallory says, they “killed life” by murdering Red Cloud.
As Mickey and Mallory barely make it to the Drug Zone and search for anti-venom under sickly green fluorescent light, the idealized animated versions return to the screen, as if fighting off inevitable death. Indeed, the end of the road seems near for Mickey and Mallory, and the film is efficient in bringing this act to a close. The pharmacist sits in a place of privilege and has access to a variety of screens. Although six of the screens are security monitors and only one is a cable television, his attention is on the American Maniacs TV program rather than on the action that is taking place in his store and multiplied on the security monitors. As another character who has fallen victim to the romanticized, semi-fictionalized account of Mickey and Mallory, he might have saved himself had he paid attention to the actual, seriously diminished, Mickey and Mallory stumbling through the aisles of the Drug Zone. Yet he is so distracted by the sensationalism of Wayne Gale’s show that he doesn’t use the all-seeing power of his position to effectively stop the killers. By the time his eyes dart from the TV program to the security images, he is too late. When Mickey confronts him at gunpoint and realizes that he has activated the alarm, the pharmacist reveals exactly how seduced he is by the Mickey and Mallory myth, as propagated by Gale. He protests, “I’m the only clerk left”, believing Gale’s words that Mickey and Mallory “always leave someone alive to tell the tale”. Mickey retorts, “If I don’t kill you, what is there to talk about?” and then pulls the trigger.
Outside of the Drug Zone, a media circus has formed. Scagnetti, emboldened by having viciously murdered a girl in a hotel room that resembles the Log Cabin Lodge from earlier in the film, brutalizes Mallory partially as a way to fulfill his fantasy and functionally as a means of drawing Mickey out of the store. A female reporter looks into her camera and openly conveys the media’s attraction to Mickey, describing him as “quite virile” and commenting, “he has a very large gun”. Although in the real world Scagnetti would likely not carry out his brutality so openly and brazenly with the media present, Stone’s heightened and satirical vision here connects powerfully to then-current events such as the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots. Therefore, instead of simply resembling a situation of police brutality “caught on tape”, Scagnetti actively directs the action, calling forth the TV crew (host, lighting, and camera operator) to document the ferocious beating the police officers mete out to Mickey. The scene of operatic violence ends as Mallory once again retreats to a pop song to both communicate and emotionally escape from her situation. She sings the chorus from Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walkin’ ” to her attacker, Scagnetti, anticipating their eventual bloody reunion.
A year later, in the prison that holds Mickey and Mallory, Scagnetti teams up with Warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones), who commends Scagnetti’s book and says it would make a better film adaptation than Serpico. This opens the door for autobiographer Scagnetti to engage in additional self-mythologizing, as cites the murder of his mother by Charles Whitman as the motivation for his interest in psychopaths. Stone illustrates Scagnetti’s memory of the incident with documentary realism visually similar to the coverage of the shooting in JFK. However, interestingly, this “reality” is intercut with shots of what we are beginning to recognize as Mickey’s traumatic childhood scene. Perhaps Stone merges the two memories to suggest that everyone has some sort of early trauma, or more likely, to suggest that we would all like to believe so as a means of excusing future mistakes and misdeeds. Stone intensifies this linkage by inserting a shot of Scagnetti murdering the hooker as part of the Whitman flashback. In keeping with the film’s criticism of pop psychology’s dubious associations, Scagnetti identifies the Whitman trauma as giving him strong opinions about the “psychopathic fringe that thrives in America’s fast food culture”, yet he does not seem to realize how firmly entrenched he is as a participant (rather than observer) of that culture.
The deadly combination of Scagnetti and McClusky is solidified when McClusky proposes that Scagnetti should murder Mickey and Mallory during a prison transfer. McClusky, perhaps even more taken with media accounts than Scagnetti, imagines how their collusion will extend the narrative of Mickey and Mallory. He tells Scagnetti to “write the script…call it anything you want to” and his suggested titles are “Showdown in Mojave” and “The Extermination of Mickey and Mallory Knox”. Scagnetti, however, is skeptical about allowing outside media forces to take any role in the telling, especially when he learns that Wayne Gale, whom he calls the “TV scumbag”, is in the prison to pitch an interview show with Mickey. McClusky somewhat sarcastically reasserts his allegiance to the media by answering, “We call them media, Jack. Don’t you like media? You can’t say no to the media, Jack.”
The prison section of Natural Born Killers continues in this manner. While the first half of the film relies primarily on visual fragmentation and formal allusion, the satirical content in the second half of the film is much more direct and wordy. This is somewhat unavoidable, as the central media figure of the film, Wayne Gale, comes to the fore in this act. However, many of the characters start to sound more like mouthpieces of media criticism rather than disposing and disposable bodies and byproducts of media saturation, which is what they are in the first half of the film. There is something dramatically interesting in seeing the cogs become cognizant of their role in the machine, but the dialogue sometimes conveys this development too transparently.
Gale pitches his show to Mickey, whose first concern is to find out how his and Mallory’s installment of American Maniacs fared in the ratings against episodes about other famous killers such as John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, and Charles Manson. When Gale concedes that Manson beat them, Mickey replies, “It’s pretty hard to beat the king”. In fact, a real life media event that informed Gale’s interview with Mickey is the Geraldo Rivera/Charles Manson interview from 1987, in which Manson is regarded as having intellectually outpaced his interviewer. Gale, a thinly veiled Rivera figure, envisions his exclusive interview with Mickey as being so important that there will be “promos on the Super Bowl”, and this is believable because the film has established the intense public interest that exists around Mickey and Mallory. Even as he talks in heightened language about the interview, comparing it to the Frost/Nixon interviews and the Maysles’ documentation of the tragic Altamont incident in Gimme Shelter, Gale seems unaware of the possible consequences of holding the interview in a prison. He promises that the interview will be a “stealth operation”, but then says on the phone to a producer that the men watching at home will tune in to see Mickey because “these guys want to tear their wives’ heads off.” His acknowledgement of the likely incitement of violence is at odds with his willful ignorance of the possible effects of that violence.
An on-screen graphic informs the audience that Super Bowl Sunday has arrived, and the event is recontextualized within the film. This is no longer an event primarily about sport and advertising, because they have been replaced by the more sensational spectacle of Mickey’s live post-game interview. Gale’s “stealth operation” has of course gone completely out of control, as the inmates are watching the show within the prison. They are literally a captive audience and particularly susceptible to incitement. Stone’s use of real prisoners and his location shooting in Illinois’ Stateville Correctional Center provide additional, realistically combustible layers to the volatile fictional situation of a serial killer going live on the air. The interview succeeds as spectacle because Mickey gives Gale the kind of self-mythologizing answers that he knows make for good television. Mickey seems somewhat too intelligent in this section of the film, in that he offers the kind of analysis and barely readable, highly nuanced sarcasm that he has not seemed capable of heretofore in the film. As a variation on the Rivera/Manson interview, the sequence is very entertaining, but as previously noted, Mickey becomes too much of a conduit for intellectual insights of the writers. One section, in which Mickey talks about being violent from birth, forgotten by God, and having inherited violence from his father, sounds much like Stone’s own inventory of disappointments and failures from the filmmaker’s interview with David Breskin. Mickey’s recounting of his childhood experience finally introduces the full sequence of the early traumatic event that the film has hinted at throughout. In this remembrance, Mickey’s father commits suicide in a field, in full view of the child. Blame for his father’s death seems to have fallen on Mickey.
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.