Over the last quarter century, it’s hard to think of a movie more polarizing than Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Most people fall into one of two camps. Either they think it’s hyper-violent, repugnant garbage, or conversely, they believe it to be brutally prescient satire. Even Quentin Tarantino – whose script the film was based upon – took issue with the final product. When asked about Natural Born Killers after its release, Tarantino said, “If you don’t like it, that’s Oliver. If you do like it, well, that’s Oliver too.” It takes a lot for Tarantino to find a cinematic vision too extreme, and maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just felt it was too far from his original idea. Whatever the case, Tarantino had his credit on the film downgraded from screenwriter to “Story by.”
Regardless, what if there’s another way to look at Stone’s singular achievement – whether you like the film or not. What if everyone is right? Furthermore, what if that was the point in the first place?
When Natural Born Killers was released in 1994, Oliver Stone was coming to the end of one of the more remarkable ten-year runs in the history of filmmaking. Starting with Salvador and Platoon in 1986 and culminating with Nixon in 1995, every Oliver Stone film was an event.
To call his films “lightning rods” is to insult the force of nature he was for a decade. Over that stretch, Stone made ten films. Three of them received best picture nominations form the Academy. He took home two best director Oscars for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. Only the third film in his Vietnam trilogy, Heaven and Earth could be considered a misfire – albeit an honorable one.
Hell, let’s just list off the films. Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, JFK, Heaven and Earth, Natural Born Killers, and Nixon. It’s a staggering stretch of work. Pauline Kael once said that Oliver Stone directed Platoon “as if he had a gun to his head.” You could probably say that about all of these films. Each one a searing, very personal piece of work. He was a man on fire.
In some ways, Natural Born Killers is an odd film in that group. The other nine films in that series of productions seem lifted from Stone’s psyche. They dealt with the war he survived, his memories of his father (Wall Street), presidents who shaped his world view (JFK and Nixon), the band he fetishized (The Doors), or personal dramas played out against a political backdrop that he was very familiar with (Salvador and Talk Radio). You can see why he made all of them.
For Stone to pick up the script of the hottest “it boy” in Hollywood and turn it into his own thing perhaps spoke of a man who made a film because he wasn’t sure what to do next, but he wanted to do something. As if the stories he had left to tell – those burning to get out of him – were all but exhausted.
There’s a hilarious story in producer, Jane Hamsher’s memoir (Killer Instinct) of the making of the film where she and co-producer, Don Murphy, get into a van and ride out into the desert to scout a location. The farther into the New Mexico wasteland they drove, the more the two producers got nervous. Where the Hell was Stone taking them? Suddenly, Stone tells the driver to hit the brakes. He gets out of the vehicle, looks around, and says, “This is a good place for the Indian scene.” At which point, Hamsher looks at Murphy and says, “What Indian scene?”
I guess at this point it’s not hard to see how Tarantino felt like this was Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and not his. Tarantino’s original script was supposedly more of wickedly funny road movie about two serial killers. At times, Stone’s film is that too. But all the social commentary in the film likely comes from its director, not its writer.
And what thundering commentary it was. Stone was never known as the most subtle director, but on Natural Born Killers he abandoned the concept of a light touch entirely. Every moment in the film is punctuated as if a hammer striking a flat hand on a table. As electrifying as Stone’s technique is (the editing, camera movement, and use of multiple film stocks are dizzying sights to behold), much of what is onscreen is vicious and ugly. As Mickey and Mallory – think Bonnie and Clyde turned up to eleven hundred – Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis (both astonishing) make no effort to be liked. Their two killers are largely unrepentant, vile monsters. Their behavior is grotesque and irredeemable.
The funny thing is, their actions and perspective is not what Stone is really interested in. Despite one or both leads being onscreen almost every second of the film, what Stone is truly focused on is, well, us – the viewer. Long before there were Kardashian’s on our television and a game show host in the White House, Stone was looking at the psychology of the American people and our love of infamous celebrity. Coming right on the heels of the OJ Simpson murder case, Stone intended Natural Born Killers to be a horrifying reflection of perhaps who we were, but maybe even more likely, who we were becoming.
The character of Wayne Gale, played by a wondrous, scenery-scarfing Robert Downey Jr., is our avatar in the film. He’s our lens into this world where nothing is more important than getting headlines – no matter what those headlines are. “Family of six murdered by crazed gunman. Tune in at five.” Basing his character on Geraldo Rivera and two Australian producers of the tabloid TV hit, Inside Edition, Downey’s Wayne Gale has a lust for blood that matches that of the protagonists. He simply can’t get enough. And as Mickey and Mallory, in this barely fictional world, become more popular among the masses, we realize that we are chasing the same thing Wayne Gale is – only at a safer distance. We want what he wants. Sensation, stimulation, blood. The more, the better.
If what I’m describing sounds like a lot to take, that’s because it is. Stone does not insinuate, he bludgeons – relentlessly. That he does so as a director at the top of his craft doesn’t change the fact that watching Natural Born Killers is a bit like getting punched in the face for two hours. The thing is, I mean that as a compliment. It’s a wild, transgressive work of art. It makes American Psycho look like a Saturday morning cartoon.
Even the hiring of Trent Reznor to curate the soundtrack speaks volumes to the filmmaker’s vision. Dire tracks from Nine Inch Nails, Leonard Cohen, and most famously, The Cowboy Junkies version of Sweet Jane, weave in and out of a nightmarish landscape that never lets you breathe. Not even when the action slows for the occasional very brief moment. It’s as if the intent of the film is not so much to keep you on the edge of your seat with suspense (although it does do that), as it is to keep you on the edge of walking out.
Perhaps no sequence in the film illustrates that point more than the sitcom “break” mid-film which depicts Juliette Lewis’ home life with her lecherous father, played by Rodney Dangerfield – complete with laugh track. Watching Dangerfield track Lewis around a crummy sub-Married with Children set while canned laughter bursts from the soundtrack is just about the queasiest thing I’ve seen in a movie theater. I don’t know how to rationalize or defend it other than to say it works perfectly with the rest of the film. Take that however you want.
Love it or loathe it, no one has ever seen anything like it. And even if you are in the “love” camp, you might be glad for that fact. Random, horrifying murders. Brutal, sadistic violence. Their is an unrelenting rancid psychology at play. That is Natural Born Killers. It is beyond the pale. It is a depiction of the American psyche shot against the backdrop of a funhouse mirror.
As the film closes, there is no relief. Mickey and Mallory escape. They continue on as folk heroes. There are no good guys, only criminals, victims and rubbernecking viewers. It’s a horrifying vision of America that few were ready for. But as we look around the times we live in, where children are kept in cages, our environment is literally on fire, a racist revival well underway, and the leader of the free world is a stupid, repugnant, half-assed celebrity whom nearly half of the American voting population cheer for as he declares up to be down and wrong to be right, it’s hard not to wonder about us.
The money shot in the film is the moment an incarcerated Mickey looks into the camera and responds to the question posed by Wayne Gale. The question of “why?” What made you like this? Harrelson screws up a perfect smirk and replies, “I’m just a natural born killer.” And the audience at home goes almost as wild as the ensuing jailbreak that brings the film to an unhinged crescendo.
Now, look at a rally being held by the current occupant of the White House – if you can stand it – where a bloviating fool makes fun of minorities, women, and the disabled in a hideous display of ego and cynicism. Watch the crowd around him as they froth and rave in their red hats and t-shirts.
Now, tell me, was Natural Born Killers all that extreme, or just a little early?