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 two camps: either they think it’s hyper-violent, repugnant garbage, or 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 the final product 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 far from his original idea. Whatever the case, Tarantino had his credit on the film changed from screenwriter to “Story by.”
But what if there’s another way to look at Stone’s singular achievement, whether you like the film or not? What if both camps are right? Furthermore, what if that’s the film’s whole point?
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. Three received best picture nominations form the Academy. He took home two best director Oscars (one for Platoon and one for 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 the odd one of the group. The other nine films in the series of productions seem lifted right 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 he was very familiar with (Salvador and Talk Radio). You can see why he made all of them.
For Stone to pick up a script of the hottest “it” boy in Hollywood perhaps spoke of a man who wasn’t sure what to do next, but wanted to do something. As if the stories he had left to tell, the ones burning to get out of him, were all but exhausted.
There’s a hilarious story in producer Jane Hamsher’s memoir (enitled Killer Instinct) of the making of the film where she and co-producer Don Murphy get into a van with Stone to scout out a location in the desert. 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 and 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?”
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 script was supposedly more of wickedly funny road movie about two serial killers. At times Stone’s film is that, too. But 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 like a hammer striking your 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 in their roles, make no effort to be liked. Their two killers are largely unrepentant, vile monsters.
The funny thing is, their actions and perspective are 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 Kardashians on our television screens and a game show host in the White House, Stone was looking at the psychology of the American populous 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 who we were, or rather, 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 new, insane world where nothing is more important than getting headlines – no matter what they 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 just can’t get enough. And as Mickey and Mallory become more popular with the masses in this barely fictional world, 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 that 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 as it is to keep you on the edge of walking out of the theater.
Perhaps no sequence in the film illustrates this point better than the sitcom “break” mid-film, which depicts Juliette Lewis’ home life with her lecherous father, played by Rodney Dangerfield. 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. There’s an unrelenting rancid psychology at play in Natural Born Killers. It is beyond the pale. It’s a depiction of the American psyche shot against the backdrop of a funhouse mirror.
As the film closes there is still no relief. Mickey and Mallory escape, and 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 now, where children are locked in cages and the environment is literally on fire, where a racist revival is well underway, and the leader of the free world is a stupid, repugnant celebrity that nearly half of the American voting population cheer on 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 a question posed by Wayne Gale. The question of “why?” What made you like this? Harrelson screws up the perfect smirk and replies, “I’m just a natural born killer.” And the audience at home goes almost as wild as the ensuing jailbreak brings the film to an unhinged crescendo.
Now, look at a rally being held by the current president – 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. More importantly, 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?