The first few shots in Natural Born Killers are of creatures to which the title can be applied without moral judgment. A hawk glares at the desert; a rattlesnake gazes into the camera with a dull, ill face.
Then the scene shifts to a roadside diner, where the central characters--Mickey and Mallory, who are lovers and fugitive mass murderers--have stopped for lunch. Before Mickey has finished his dessert (the most disgusting-looking slice of key lime pie in movie history), before the film is five minutes gone, before the opening credits have even begun, Mickey and Mallory send four more victims to redneck Valhalla. When those opening credits do kick in, they're accompanied by a burst of hot-rod guitar, while black blood oozes down the screen behind the letters. It's a successful evocation by director Oliver Stone of the atmosphere of a sleazy biker exploitation film of the 60s or 70s, and this, combined with the awareness that the original script was by pulp-wunderkind Quentin Tarantino, gets the juices flowing.
But, of course, Stone wouldn't think of settling for anything as simple as a sleazy biker movie, or letting any deeper social themes which might be inherent in the material resonate under the surface. Stone, phenomenally talented though he is, isn't much for resonances; he prefers to scream in our ears. So Stone, abetted by a couple of other screenwriters, turned Natural Born Killers into a splenetic, cacophonous satire on the relationship between television and heinous crime. The focus is on the video-glamorizing of the sexy pair of fiends (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), and how they manipulate a sleazy tabloid-TV star (marvelously played by Robert Downey Jr.) for their own ends. The film is a real mixed bag, even for Stone--some of it packs an undeniable punch, but much of it is childishly obvious. The plot actually belies the title, since it shows us in flashback that Mickey and Mallory weren't born to kill but rather bred to it, in family lives of abusive, white-trash misery. The first half of the story is a "road-kill" movie, akin to Kalifornia (in which Lewis also starred) or True Romance (which Tarantino also wrote). Mickey and Mallory roll across the American inferno, pointlessly killing people. In the film's second half, they're in prison, and they use the occasion of an interview by a TV creep to attempt an escape.
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Stone's stylistic choice is bold, at least superficially. He cannibalizes the bullying techniques of television to make his points--for instance, he stages Mallory's hideous home life as a cheesy sitcom, complete with laugh track. Given this approach, Harrelson and Lewis fill the requirements of the roles. They don't create full-blooded characters, but they aren't asked to. The same is true of the other performers. Rodney Dangerfield and Edie McClurg are suitably repugnant as Mallory's parents. Except for Downey, the best acting is that of Tom Sizemore, who manages to underplay the sadistic cop stalking the pair to the point that his performance seems, comparatively, like a model of realism and restraint. The worst performance in the film, by far, is by Tommy Lee Jones as a diabolical prison warden. This fine actor, who over his last few films has been displaying a steadily increasing appetite for the scenery, at last tops out and becomes annoying.
The cartoonishness and deliberate artifice of the performances and of Stone's directorial flourishes seem intended as Brechtian distancing, but what does he want to distance us from? Certainly not the luridness which true-crime TV feeds on--he pushes our faces in that. Well, then, does he want to distance us from the human pain of Mickey and Mallory's victims? I don't think that's it, either, although we are distanced from it. In the film's most embarrassing, pretentious scene, Mickey inadvertently kills somebody in the home of a Native American (Russell Means), and Mallory scolds him because, that time, he "killed life." This is what Stone claims he's getting at--that we in mainstream society, thanks to the media, are already dead, and Mickey and Mallory are just breaking the news to us. We've all heard that one before, of course, but look below it and you'll sense another agenda at work. I think, above all, that Stone wants to distance himself from Mickey and Mallory, and from the sleazy true-crime genre in which he's working. It's not, after all, as if murder and sleaze weren't in his range as an artist. Whatever one's politics or historical opinions, JFK was a great movie (or, at the very least, great moviemaking), but in the end, it still belonged to a lurid genre--the docudrama. It was the ultimate episode of America's Most Wanted. The difference between JFK and Natural Born Killers is that Stone wanted to identify with that impassioned young prosecutor played by Kevin Costner. He also wanted to identify with the screwed-up, spiritually wounded, but basically noble heroes of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, and with the adventurous, Dionysian artist Jim Morrison in The Doors. He spends Natural Born Killers making Mickey and Mallory into grotesque, gibbering caricatures--sometimes unnerving ones, but caricatures nonetheless--perhaps for no better reason than to show that he's nothing like them. Having no heroic role model among the film's characters, he gives himself a role outside the film--he plays at being the "angry director," lashing out at our media-sodden society.
Still, in one scene, while Mickey and Mallory lie chatting on a hotel bed, Stone projects a collage of visceral movie and TV footage above their heads, like video wallpaper. Among the footage (which is far more riveting than anything the two ninnies on the bed are saying), we see glimpses of some of the more Jacobean moments from Scarface and Midnight Express, both films scripted by Stone himself--violent, horrible images which he had a hand in creating. Perhaps Stone intends this small, furtive gesture as an avowal that a few drops of prurient blood never did his career any harm.
Natural Born Killers could have been far scarier and more to the media-bashing point (but less commercially viable) had the same script, or at least the central characters, been presented straightforwardly. Of course, it's difficult (and perhaps not even healthy) to deal with the TV-friendly variety of crime without a touch of black comedy; most such incidents bring out the ugly humor in us all (the O.J. business is one of those real-life events which will give social satirists a lot of catching up to do). In general, though, Stone is quite right--the trivialization of real (as opposed to fictional) violence by the mass media is a serious matter. So why did he trivialize it?