Friday, March 12, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Natural Born Killers (1994)

Following two surreal hours of ultra-violent imagery and deep social criticism, Oliver Stone's controversial 1990s masterpiece, Natural Born Killers concludes with fact.

Specifically, the film ends with real-life footage of the Waco/David Koresh stand-off, disgraced ice skater Tonya Harding taking a tumble, Lorena Bobbitt on the witness stand (on trial for cutting off her husband's penis...), the murderous Menendez Brothers, murder suspect O.J. Simpson, and even Rodney King asking (famously): "can't we all just get along?"

This montage is an exclamation point; a sharp punctuation capping off a fiercely presented argument. It seems to say, "welcome to the tabloid-TV culture of America in the 1990s; where crime pays, and pays well." Commit a notorious murder and you are...a superstar.

Who's that on the phone? The Jenny Jones Show is calling...

Accordingly, Natural Born Killers was advertised on theatrical release as a "bold new film that takes a look at a country seduced by fame, obsessed by crime, and consumed by the media."

And yes, that indeed represents truth in advertising. Natural Born Killers -- a sensational bombardment of incendiary sound and imagery -- burns through its expansive running time with a blazing indictment of the mainstream media. The charge? Lowering the national discourse. Finally, director Stone makes his explicit closing argument with real-life archival footage.

Natural Born Killer's closing montage declares, essentially: You think we're exaggerating? You think we're kidding? Well, lookie here: this is who we are (to appropriate Millennium's confrontational [1996-1999] tag-line). The documentary-style final montage pointedly connects the misadventures of fictional mass-murderers Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) to the real-life celebrities who found fame and fortune the same way. It tells us that even though Natural Born Killers qualifies as satire, it is hardly exaggerated in terms of narrative content (though style and presentation are different arguments entirely.)

This closing documentary montage also represents Oliver Stone's inoculation from critics who complained that he was coarsening the dialogue himself. On the contrary, Natural Born Killers represents cinematic commentary at its finest because it draws together so many disparate cultural elements and synthesizes them into a lucid, pointed critique of the times. After making its case in fictional and artistic terms, it graduates to the terrain of the real and we see there is little gap between what Stone has imagined and was happening every day on our televisions.

Sitcom America: Or I Love Mallory

Early in Natural Born Killers, the film re-constructs, in flashback, the first, fateful meeting of Mickey and Mallory. This sequence is presented as a black-and-white TV sitcom from the 1950s. Something along the lines of Leave it to Beaver (1957-1962), or, of course, I Love Lucy (1951-1957).

This "sitcom" of Mallory's family life in Natural Born Killers charts the colossal gulf between the imagery sold to America regarding family life, and the truth, for many Americans, of such family life in the 1990s.

Specifically, a greasy, monstrous Rodney Dangerfield portrays Mallory's Dad in this sequence and, well, let's just establish he is hardly Robert Young in Father Knows Best (1954-1960). On the contrary, he is verbally and physically abusive to his wife (Edie McClurg) and his children. He gropes his own daughter and even sexually abuses her. Again, this is a far cry from the perfect domestic bliss of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (1952-1956).

When one of the first national surveys regarding childhood sexual abuse was conducted in 1989, researchers discovered that such abuse was prevalent in a whopping 27% of respondents. To parse that figure, on the cusp of the 1990s more than one-in-four American women reported being sexually abused by family members during their formative years. That's not just a shameful statistic, it's an epidemic. But the media wasn't going to connect the dots for us. It was too busy feeding us reinforcing images about the American family (in empty-headed sitcoms), and, at the opposite pole, entertaining us with the bread & circuses of talk shows. Natural Born Killers threads together these two disparate worlds. One commercial image was patently idealized and false (dangerously so), and the other encouraged our worst rubber-necking instincts. Was it any wonder our culture had become so schizophrenic? Self-righteously moral on one hand, and voyeuristic on the other?

In Natural Born Killers, the form of the sitcom or "situation comedy" reveals Mallory's life as she imagined it should be (replete with an oppressive laugh-track eradicating any scary sense of ambiguity). But the content of that domestic drama reveals the grim truth of it. "She has a sad sickness," Mickey notes of Mallory at one point. She "wanders in a world of ghosts." Those ghosts are black-and-white ones transmitted by a flickering cathode ray tube; images of perfect sitcom personalities who don't exist in real life. Mallory is haunted by the media's image of family life, unaware that it can never be.

You're Buying and Selling Fear: Mass Media as The Devil

In Natural Born Killers, Robert Downey Jr. plays Wayne Gale, the arrogant host of a lurid "true crime" TV series called American Maniacs.

Gale is not, however, concerned with truth or objectivity, merely with high ratings...which will bring him wealth and personal fame. Gale is so smug that he looks upon his subjects as "apes" and notes he is the "God" of his own world.

Mickey and Mallory's cross-country killing spree is thus an opportunity for Wayne to grand-stand, to look powerful in front of his audience. He schedules a live interview with the incarcerated Mickey for Superbowl Sunday. And there, the vainglorious Wayne shall show off to the high heavens. He will look heroic by verbally jousting with the "monster," Mickey.

When a riot begins in Mickey's prison, however, Wayne blurs the lines. He goes from reporting on the crimes to participating in them. He picks up a gun and actually starts shooting police officers to keep the broadcast going, to keep the story alive (even as mortals die). The message is clear here, isn't it? The media is complicit in the crime sprees it reports with such verve.

Occasionally in Natural Born Killers, Oliver Stone jump cuts -- in almost subliminal fashion -- to expressionistic visuals depicting Wayne Gale as the Devil. Actually, as a blood-soaked Devil. Since this character symbolizes the media in the film, Stone is making a comparison of "evils," and finding the mainstream media amongst the worst. Natural Born Killers reveals clearly how criminals and the media work hand-in-hand. The media transforms criminals into celebrities, and the criminals in turn, hand the media high ratings. It's a win-win arrangement in what Stone calls a "fast food culture."

In keeping with this theme, there's a great montage midway through the film that features "people on the street" in London, Tokyo, Paris and America professing their undying love of killers Mickey and Mallory. The spree-murderers also make the covers of People, Esquire, Newsweek, The New York Post and other periodicals. That which is famous must be good, right? Stone even cuts to Brian De Palma's Scarface at one point, and, as viewers, we are asked to ponder an important question. Why do we, as Americans, worship our gangsters? Why do we admire killers?

Like Remy Belvaux's brilliant satire, Man Bites Dog (1992), Stone's Natural Born Killers suggests that, in the unending quest for a greater audience share, the media can't help but participate and encourage the violent stories it reports on and profits from. The irony is that Mickey and Mallory understand this "evil," and put an end to Wayne Gale: they kill him on camera, effectively killing the media's role in their particular story. To some people, this makes these bad guys -- on some weird level -- admirable.

Many right wing critics complained vociferously about Natural Born Killers. It indeed seems to present unrepentant murderers as the "heroes" of the piece. My response to this argument is two-pronged. First, Natural Born Killers is a surreal, avant-garde expression of Mickey and Mallory's story, and to them, they certainly are the heroes of their adventure. And secondly, Stone boasts no illusions about his protagonists. In fact, he continually associates the two killers with the symbol of the rattlesnake.

A rattlesnake is not, in a strict sense, evil. A rattlesnake is, however, a dangerous killer. And, in the lingo of the film (and Mickey himself), Mickey and Mallory are "natural" born killers, meaning that they were made this the rattlesnake. I take this to mean they were socialized to become society's rattlesnakes. They are not evil, per se, they are merely living according to their nature. And even though they are murderous, at least they love each other.

This is not a glorification of violence or brutality, it's a notation , I submit, about honesty. Mickey and Mallory are honest about themselves. They are the only people in the film who can make this particular claim. They are exactly what they appear to be: Natural Born Killers. Mallory's Dad is not a loving force of paternal wisdom as the sitcom form suggests he should be...he's an exploitative sexual abuser. Wayne Gale is not a tribune of the people and honest broker of the facts, he's a sideshow barker and rubber-necker seeking personal fame and glory. Even Tommy Lee Jones' warden and Tom Sizemore's police detective, Scagnetti, are not symbols of legitimate law enforcement, but rather sick sadists looking to get their piece of the pie.

In a world of such personalities, Mickey and Mallory are indeed a lesser evil because they know what they are and don't pretend to be something else. At the very least, they aren't "buying and selling" an artificial image.

It's no coincidence that Mallory is depicted, at one point in the film, reading Sylvia Plath's 1963 novel, The Bell Jar. That story was set in a complacent, slick modern society of tremendous hypocrisy. The main character, Esther, was a tabloid writer aware of the lurid details of the jet-set. In real life, Plath chose suicide rather than continued existence in such a culture. In Natural Born Killers, Mickey and Mallory choose homicide as a solution, but in both cases, the act seems a protest against a garish, excessive world built on tabloid pillars.

Oliver Stone's film stops very far short of endorsing Mickey and Mallory as role models or model citizens, however. During one powerful scene, a window in a hotel becomes a TV screen of sorts. Behind Mickey and Mallory we see images of Stalin and Hitler prominently displayed. Worship these people at your own risk, the movie seems to say. It's a slippery slope indeed from Mickey and Mallory to O.J. Simpson to The Menendez Brothers to Hitler or Stalin. Why? The celebrity culture thrives on ratings, not on inherent worth or morality. We should not mistake fame or infamy for virtue, and that's a key message of Stone's movie.

It's a well-known fact that Columbine Killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris used the term "NBK" (Natural Born Killers) as code for their own horrific killing spree. But these young killers certainly took away the wrong lesson from Stone's film. They imagined being famous, whereas fame is something that Mickey and Mallory never covet or desire in the film. Stone's film criticized such fame, and specifically, we have that ending montage to confirm that Natural Born Killers is intended, indeed, as social criticism.

Mickey and Mallory are rattlesnakes in Natural Born Killers, and they almost die while crossing a field of authentic rattlesnakes. That image, perhaps, is the film's most resonant one. It's not just a regurgitation of the old live-by-the-sword/die-by-the-sword truism, but a comment on the very nature of our culture and corporate media. Navigating a straight, safe trajectory, isn't always easy.

Natural Born Killers? Mickey and Mallory are practically babes in the woods compared to the cynicism of Wayne Gale, Jack Scagnetti and the other vultures they encounter in this film.


  1. Well said, sir! This is a demented kind of masterpiece and I remember seeing it when it first came out and expecting there to be much more of a stink about then there actually was. In some respects, it was A CLOCKWORK ORANGE for the 1990s and if anything the state of the media and popular culture has only gotten WORSE since this film. One wonders what Mickey and Mallory would've made of reality TV? If anything they probably would have starred in their own reality show.

    As for the sitcom parody that doubles for Mallory's troubling family life, I found it interesting that obviously Stone was turning LEAVE IT TO BEAVER-type sitcom on its head but also showing how by the time the film was made, the family sitcom had mutated into the trashy excess of something like MARRIED... WITH CHILDREN which is what I always felt Stone was riffing on with the general look and raunchiness of I LOVE MALLORY.

    This is a film that you really could write a book on for the juicy production stories alone! I read Jane Hamsher's book which dished some fascinating anecdotes and have read plenty of accounts in articles that came out at the time about how Stone shot in a real prison for the final third of the film and, of course, how actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Sizemore were hooked to the gills on major drug habits... Much like APOCALYPSE NOW, the cast and crew seemed to really live the film they were making, which may be why there is such a strong conviction behind it. I admire that the film has the balls to really go for it and is not afraid to go after the media and pop culture in general, holding up a mirror to it and showing how grotesque, in some respects, it has become. It makes the film eerily relevant now as nothing really has changed all that much.

  2. J.D.

    Thanks for writng. I'm so glad you brought up the Clockwork Orange comparison: I meant to make mention of that, but didn't. You are correct that in many ways, this is a 1990s version of that Kubrick film.

    I had no idea about some of the juicy background stories, but it certainly makes sense: the movie wreaks of 1990s excess, that's for sure (but in a good way, I think...)


  3. Hamsher's book is a fascinating read even if she has an obvious axe to grind but the fact that Stone actually got permission to shoot in one of the most dangerous prisons in the US of A is incredible enough! Throw in Juliette Lewis actually breaking Tom Sizemore's nose (accidentally), Stone almost getting pulled over in the desert with a car full of drugs and you've gotta helluva story.

    Of course, excess is nothing new for Stone. Just look at THE DOORS!

  4. I hate to admit it, but I've never seen this film. I've always heard about it, but always seemed to avoid it. Because you and J.D. speak so highly of it, I'm finally going to do it! Thanks for the examination analysis, JKM.

  5. For a brief time Stone was a genuinely Psychedelic director (and deliberately so) and the films of that period (The Doors - JFK - NBK) show actual genius (wrapped in some cringey dialogue, especially the first movie mentioned)(and bad wigs). I wish he could recapture some of that deranged magic, but I suppose that's like putting the kaleidoscopic toothpaste back into the tube.

  6. Great, great article. I'm so glad you focused a lot on the sitcom sequence. I haven't seen NBK for a number of years but the sick feeling that scene gave me still sticks with me.

    I'm also a huge Woody Harrelson fan and, unlike other actors faced with his background, I think he managed to shed the Woody Boyd image he feared he'd get attached to (and look at his filmography in the last few years of Cheers and beyond) by picking completely different roles that just so happen to be GOOD. He wasn't desperate like a Meg Ryan (In the Cut), Sandrs Bullock (Crash), or *gasp* Elizabeth Berkely!

    On another note. . .I just realized I read one of your books about six years ago and had no idea! It was The Askew View.

  7. DLR:

    "I wish he could recapture some of that deranged magic, but I suppose that's like putting the kaleidoscopic toothpaste back into the tube."

    Truer words were never spoken. Stone almost got back to his deranged psychedelic style of filmmaking with ALEXANDER (depending on which cut you see) but I felt that he didn't go far enough! Oh well...

    William Johnson:

    "I'm also a huge Woody Harrelson fan and, unlike other actors faced with his background, I think he managed to shed the Woody Boyd image he feared he'd get attached to (and look at his filmography in the last few years of Cheers and beyond) by picking completely different roles that just so happen to be GOOD."

    This true. I always liked Woody and I think that his turn in NBK really freed him up and allowed him to do pretty much anything. It was great to see him get so many wonderful notices this past year for both ZOMBIELAND and THE MESSENGER.

  8. Robin F2:16 PM

    "They imagined being famous, whereas fame is something that Mickey and Mallory never covet or desire in the film."

    In the context of them not fame-seeking, can you clarify why Mickey and Mallory have their tradition of leaving someone alive to make sure they get credit for their murders? During the pharmacy scene Mickey also references that he has to kill the clerk because otherwise there would be nothing for people to talk about. I'm not sure how to interpret those practices/comments other than as a desire to create fodder for the media machine/fame-seeking, so I'd enjoy hearing a different perspective on that. :)

    1. Hi Robin, that's a great question, and a very insightful one. For me, what Mickey and Mallory do is actually about ownership, not celebrity or fame. They are killers, and they are taking ownership/responsibility for what they are (rattlesnakes). This is important to them. This is different than wanting to be a celebrity for fame's sake. That's the media's job.

    2. Robin F6:58 PM

      Thank you for the response! That makes total sense to me: it's that they're marking their territory, in a way. Similar to a predator urinating to warn others away, although Mickey and Mallory's version is far more messy and grief-inducing (and very few people would want to watch a movie about a couple peeing everywhere anyway, so it's good Stone didn't go in that direction, heh).

      Hm, thinking along those lines does make me wonder about the scene early on where Mallory is peeing in the sand. When watching it I thought the scene was just to show that they're already comfortable enough with each other to just keep chatting while she does her business, but now I wonder if the scene was more about reinforcing the symbolism of them as pure/wild animals, living beyond the rules of urbanized society. I mean, Stone doesn't waste scenes; if he bothered to put in a scene about somebody urinating outside, there was definitely a reason for it.