Oliver Stone is not known for his sense of subtlety. This is the man who wrote Scarface. This is the man who felt he needed to make up things about Jim Morrison to make him seem weird. This is the man who wants us to believe that President Kennedy is dead because of some kind of outrageous gay sex conspiracy. This is a man who claims the CIA is stalking him (presumably when they’re not busy listening to Steven Seagal’s phone calls). So no, Oliver Stone is not known for his sense of subtlety.
Viking Night: Natural Born Killers
By Bruce Hall
June 26, 2012
This is underscored by the opening moments of Natural Born Killers, Stone’s 1994 masterpiece of self indulgent chest thumping and philosophical double talk. Everyone who’s ever seen it already knew what it was about; Oliver Stone’s ultra-violent serial killer circle jerk was a media lightning rod from day one. So while you’d expect there to be some death imagery in a film like this, it would probably be subtle, right? A story about a pair of sociopathic, star crossed mass murderers shouldn’t need to work very hard to drive home a point, right?
Wrong. Starting with crimson filtered landscapes, moving on to grainy black and white shots of feral wolves, loving close ups of dead livestock, a selective television montage of postwar American history (emphasizing how innocent and pure we all were until Richard Nixon came along and ruined everything), it’s obvious what Stone wants to establish. That this movie named Natural Born Killers is going to be primarily about death and decay. And in case you’re not convinced, we’re told that the crime spree in question begins at a roadside diner near State Highway 666.
I repeat - Oliver Stone is not known for his sense of subtlety.
But hold on, it gets worse. Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory’s (Juliette Lewis) first murder spree is so outrageously over the top that it’s hard to tell whether or not you’re supposed to laugh or be sick. So, you kind of end up doing both. And it’s not even the bloodshed that will bother you. There are roughly 8,000 on screen deaths in Natural Born Killers, but most are so “Tom and Jerry” style that it almost DOES make you laugh. But you can’t, because there’s just nothing funny about filmmaking this incredibly, gloriously - almost Biblically - awful.
So, five minutes into the film we have Woody Harrelson wearing blood red Lennon specs and Juliette Lewis dressed like Princess Leia’s metal bikini got Janis Joplin pregnant - which would be very awesome, were it not for the stupid things going on around them. Forget about the endless machine gun edits and numbingly obvious soundtrack choices. There are camera tilts that’ll remind you of Adam West prancing around in blue tights. There’s a pair of comically dumb rednecks that might as well have “first victim” written on their foreheads in red lipstick. This is what Oliver Stone considers “a hint of things to come”.
Nobody’s surprised to see a heaping helping of foreshadowing at this point in a story. And it’s a free country, so if you want your movie to say and do stupidly obvious things, that’s your right. But overuse of any device eventually crosses into the realm of self parody. Natural Born Killers is already meant to be a goof on modern society, seen through the eyes of two bloodthirsty sadists. So if you’re going to add another layer of satire on top of that, you’d better have a firm grasp of subtlety. When Eric Idle says “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” it’s funny because his character doesn’t realize how badly he’s overselling the joke.
If you were writing a letter and wanted to emphasize something you might bold it, or use italics, or maybe you’d underline it. But you would never do ALL THREE. That would be obnoxious. Irritating. Insulting. You know, like the way Natural Born Killers is.
That’s too bad, because in the hands of someone with more taste, this film might have become the Network of the 1990s. Instead, you do end up leaning out the window yelling “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it any more”, but it’s for all the wrong reasons. Mickey and Mallory are two rural kids who fell in love against the wishes of her parents, whom they decide to murder as a means of compromise. Knowing their days are now numbered, they choose to spend what time they have left fulfilling every filthy, hedonistic desire, beginning with a lunchtime massacre along a lonely stretch of highway.
They’re clearly meant to be reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde. The film no doubt means to reference the grotesque zeal with which society and the media lionized them, and satirize how such a thing might happen today. Thusly, Mickey and Mallory are stalked by both a media hungry cop with selfish motives (Tom Sizemore) and a sleazy television host (Robert Downey, Jr.) who makes a living sensationalizing America’s most notorious criminals. It’s not a bad story so far, and if that were all there was to it, this might have turned out to be a decent movie.
In 1994, the Internet was still the domain of geeks and professors, but thanks to the cable TV explosion, the 24 hour entertainment cycle we take for granted today was already well underway. Tabloid journalism is something that makes us all feel dirty as it diminishes humanity and what it means to BE human. It encourages us to pass judgment on others based on the hollow facsimile we see on television. When you behave this way long enough, you diminish what it means to be a role model to the point where anyone can be a celebrity just by drawing attention to themselves.
Sadly, Stone has the restraint of a rutting boar, and therefore turns out to be his own best example. It’s clear what he’s trying to tell us, but his movie is all but consumed by its own braying libido. It’s so badly over-edited, so needlessly overproduced that any intended message is bound to get lost in the process of delivering it. It’s like the work of a freshman film student who took his first editing class and threw everything he just learned into one film. There’s a difference between the legitimate application of surrealism and a director who likes to add strange, meaningless flourish just because he CAN. This is the latter.
The film goes to great lengths to underscore the horrific childhood trauma suffered by its “protagonists,” but the movie never goes anywhere with that. There’s just too much time spent shouting, rather than making a point. Bonnie and Clyde were stupid hicks who killed 13 people, and ultimately seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the tragedy they’d unleashed. There is a sadly sympathetic angle to their story. In contrast, Mickey and Mallory’s ironic mugging removes any impulse to feel anything but revulsion toward them. Most people won’t care what their parents did to them - it’s easy to feel that anybody sick enough to kill 53 people for fun deserved whatever it was that made them evil.
Pepper all that showboating with Oliver Stone’s trademark Grumpy Cynicism, and you’ve got something that’s truly unpleasant to watch. Stone draws the same black and white conclusions about life as the people he seeks to lampoon and the fact that he goes to such lengths to avoid facing it often makes his work impossible to take seriously. Every company is corrupt. Every cop is a snickering clown. Every media personality (not Stone, of course) is a phony. There’s a sense of bitterness and anger and isolation in almost everything Oliver Stone does, but he’s long since forgotten how to harness and focus it into anything productive.
Mining your outrage is fine, provided you’re looking for meaning and not just taking it out on your audience. Natural Born Killers blames you for how bad it is, and believe me, it shows.