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 way...like 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.
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.