Viking Night: Natural Born Killers
By Bruce Hall
June 26, 2012
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.
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.