Natural Born Killers (1994): Oliver Stone’s Violent, Controversial Movie Starring Woody Harrelson

No matter what you think of Oliver Stone (and I, for one, have not been a fan), his new movie “Natural Born Killers,” is the most audacious, and timely American movie to be released this year.

It is also the most anarchically extreme picture to be financed by a major studio (Warners) in years. My companion described the movie as sort of hallucinatory acid trip; for me, it was more like a dizzyingly feverish dream, or chillingly nightmarish vision, of American society as it approaches the new millennium.

With the exception of Disney’s “The Lion King,” “Forrest Gump,” “Barcelona,” and a few foreign-language films, most of this summer’s fare, especially the blockbusters, has been disappointing. Or, to be more generous, they were well-crafted, by-the-number, impersonal machines, be they mock Westerns (“Maverick”), thrillers (“The Client”), action flicks (“Speed,” “Clear and Present Danger”), or special-effects extravaganza (“The Mask”).

Stone has always had good nose for the zeitgeist, for choosing controversial topics. The 1986 Oscar-winning “Platoon” benefitted from the country’s changing consciousness of the Vietnam War and its vets; “Wall Street” was released just weeks before the October l987 crash of the stock market.

Similarly, “Natural Born Killers” is not made in a social vacuum. The film belongs to what could be described as a variation of “Love-on-the-Run,” or “a Couple on a Murder Spree.” This uniquely American genre begins with Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, “You Only Live Once” (1937), with Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney. and continued with Nicholas Ray’s noir melodrama, “They Live By Night” (l948). But the quintessential movie that reenergized the genre–and also launched the New American Cinema–is Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” (l967), starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

Since then, there have been six or seven interesting films, including Robert Altman’s “Thieves Like Us,” Terence Malick’s “Badlands” and Steven Spielberg’s landmark debut, “The Sugarland Express” (all in 1974), as well as “Gun Crazy” (1992) with Drew Barrymore, and last year’s “Kalifornia,” with Brat Pitt and “True Romance.”

“True Romance” is particularly significant since its writer Quentin Tarantino also provided the original story for “Natural Born Killers,” though he gets only story credit. Stone, along with David Veloz and Richard Rotowski, revamped the tale to suit his needs. Nonetheless, anyone who’s familiar with Tarantino’s work (“Reservoir Dogs”) should be able to detect the specific elements and motifs that he wrote.

Placing “Natural Born Killers” in its landscape by no means suggests that it’s rehashing old conventions and visual cliches. Not at all: The movie is innovative on any level: narrative, ideological–and stylistic.

Stone has always been a better filmmaker than writer; his crude, almost primitive, screenplays before he became a director, include “Midnight Express.” “Natural Born Killers” is a rare film in that it is refreshingly not rooted in the l960s, Stone’s favorite historical decade, as evidenced in the Vietnam trilogy, “Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” and “Heaven on Earth,” as well as “The Doors” (l990) and the propagandistic but technically accomplished “JFK” (l991). Stone has finally moved forward and this in itself is good news.

In this film, Stone offers a scabrous look at our corrupt and immoral society that promotes serial killers as cultural icons, media celebrities, and consumer products. Natural Born Killers assumes that its protagonists, Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) are bad: They kill for passion and love, but also for the fun of it. The screenwriters don’t provide any psychological explanations for Mickey or Mallory’s conduct, and the movie can be faulted for that.

The flashbacks to Mallory’s background and family life are presented in sitcom terms. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield is cast against type as the bullying father who molests his daughter. And as in Badlands, where Martin Sheen rescues Sissy Spacek from her vicious father (who shoots her dog in cold blood), Mickey rescues Mallory from the clutches of her dad by a “simple” act of killing.

“Natural Born Killers” offers a brilliantly satirical and scathing indictment of the capitalistic structure of our mass media, particularly the infotainment trend of our news shows, which these days are more showbiz than reportage. According to the producers, between February 17 and May 27 of 1994, “reality-based” Network shows, such as “Inside Edition,” “Hard Copy,” “A Current Affair,” and “Prime Time Live” broadcast 45 stories about spree killers and their victims.

No doubt, without the media’s extensive coverage, Amy Fisher, Tonya Harding, the Menendez brothers, the Bobbitts and, of course, O.J. Simpson would never have becomes pop culture icons and media darlings. At least three MOWs (TV Movie of the Week) about Amy Fisher aired in the same week, and I dread to think of the number of movies (tabloid shows, supermarket books) about O.J. in the next year.

In the first part of the story, Stone records the three-week murder spree, during which Mickey and Mallory kill over 50 people, beginning with a bloody shoot-up at a roadside cafe. Later, driving on New Mexico’s Route 666, they continue to kill whenever they feel like it. They always make sure to leave one witness alive so that their legendary exploits could be told. (The same elements appear in “Bonnie and Clyde,” when the couple sends letters to the newspapers and are delighted (and sexually aroused) when stories about their escapades get published.

The film’s second part is more interesting. It’s here that Stone offers his socio-political commentary by presenting the media’s insanity and inanity, once the couple is arrested. As if to illustrate Andy Warhol’s dictum about fame, the murderers quickly become celebrity of the moment, in large part due to the coverage in such sleazy shows as “American Maniacs,” hosted by the sleazy Wayne Gable (the inspiration for this name might have come from John Wayne Bobbitt), played by Robert Downey. Outdoing the immoral exec that Faye Dunnaway played in “Network,” Gable sets out to get his highest ratings through a live interview with the killers in jail on Super Bowl Sunday!

As is often the case with Stone, a crude, blatant director, some scenes are excessively graphic and violent. In one disturbing sequence, Mallory seduces an innocent teenager before shooting him; in another, an honest Native-American gets killed for no apparent reason.

The same team responsible for JFK (cinematographer Robert Richardson, editors Hank Corwin and Brian Berdan, production designer Victor Kempster) have made again a dazzling picture, using multi-media technology (color, black-and-white footage, video) to create arresting visual imagery.

What’s worriesome is that “Natural Born Killers” is so polished technically that it might sweep–and entertain–viewers on a visceral level, failing to raise provocative and controversial questions Stone had in mind while making the film.

“Natural Born Killers” should be seen and discussed as an exaggerated cinematic essay on the commercialization of every aspect of our lives: sex, crime, violence, tabloid journalism and irresponsible media. Whether or not you like the picture, you cannot deny its central, relevant concern with what constitutes entertainment in contempo American culture, our insatiable curiosity about and even obsession with criminals.