25 Years Ago: Oliver Stone Rages With ‘Natural Born Killers’
The first half of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers tells the story of a couple named Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) as they engage in a cross-country crime spree.
They rob and murder wantonly, driving from town to town, eventually killing 52 people. Because of the news coverage of their actions – in particular, the attention from a madcap tabloid reporter Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr., adopting a bombastic Australian accent) – they become an international sensation. Kids from all over the world are shown celebrating Mickey and Mallory as cult heroes.
This mayhem comes screeching to a halt when they're apprehended by a cop named Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore). He's a psychopath himself – we see him murder a prostitute for kicks – and the author of a self-aggrandizing memoir titled Scagnetti on Scagnetti.
The second half of the film takes place a year later, at the prison in which Mickey and Mallory are being held. (A good deal of the movie was filmed at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, whose notable real-life inmates have included John Wayne Gacy, Richard Speck, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.) The prison's loathsome warden, Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones), has come up with a plan to rid the world of the couple. He's arranged to have Mickey and Mallory transferred to a mental institution under the care of Scagnetti. But instead of delivering them, Scagnetti will pretend there was an escape attempt and murder them.
The only wrench in the works is that Wayne has managed to arrange a live jailhouse interview with Mickey right before the transfer is to take place, on Super Bowl Sunday.
All of this is a perfect setup for mayhem. Stimulated by Mickey's live interview, the other prisoners riot. The prison falls completely out of control of the guards. Mickey grabs a shotgun and blasts his way loose. Taking Wayne and his camera crew hostage, he makes his way through the prison to rescue Mallory. They murder Scagnetti and a bevy of other guards and inmates, leave Warden McClusky to be torn to pieces by the prisoners and escape with Wayne, who has succumbed to his own murderous madness.
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Mickey and Mallory eventually kill him as well, and the last we see of them they're driving down the highway, some years later, in an RV with their children.
In some sense, Natural Born Killers -- which was released on Aug. 26, 1994 -- is a satire. It rides the line in many places between comedy and carnage, and the script (based on one by Quentin Tarantino, and retaining a good deal of his dialogue) gives every character a sparkling array of humorous and grotesque lines.
It's also a visual satire, constructed in a dizzying melange of styles, effects, sounds and film stocks. There's black and white, video and 35mm film footage, as well as cartoon inserts, clips from old movies, cleverly timed shots of animals and demons and a wild mix of locations and sets, including a great deal of rear projection; the soundtrack is a dreamscape collage of music and samples assembled by Nine Inch Nails leader Trent Reznor. Mickey and Mallory's meet cute is shot in the style of an '80s sitcom, in which Rodney Dangerfield plays Mallory's abusive father and Edie McClurg (from Ferris Bueller's Day Off) plays her weak-willed mother; their murders by Mickey and Mallory are the ones that kick off the killing spree.
Director Stone routinely helps his actors find tremendous performances, and has a strong clean visual sense. In Natural Born Killers he also leads an editing team (including Hank Corwin and Brian Burdan) that works wonders, given the vast amount of material that needs to be synthesized into a coherent story.
In addition, Stone has always been one of modern Hollywood's most political directors, and the patriotic anger that animates 1986's Platoon and the disgust with U.S. power structures that runs through the following year's Wall Street reaches its apex here.
Yes, Natural Born Killers is a satire, and in his public comments about the film Stone was at pains to play up that side of it. But beneath the dark comedy lies a acidic howl of rage against the vacuousness, viciousness and idiocy of certain elements of American culture.
Part of Stone's target, as he told Charlie Rose at the time of the movie's release, was what he called the "culture of surveillance." By this he meant the way the U.S. seems to both promote and revel in the titillation of tawdry private lives made public, the murders and scandals and media that Stone believed had come increasingly to define us. (There is a certain retrospective irony in this interview, as with many of Rose's, given the revelations of his own predatory behavior later.) So the gruesome thrill-killers become cultural obsessions, the kind of "news" from which we can't look away.
But Stone's other target is the American culture industry itself, and the question of what our media environment does to us as human beings. It's a question that obsessed Stone's generation – he came of age in the '60s and is a Vietnam War combat veteran – and one that underlines a good deal of what Natural Born Killers parodies.
The sitcom scene with Dangerfield is a send-up of something like Married ... With Children and Harrelson's then recently completed stint on Cheers. The plot of the film is an open homage to American couple-killer road films from 1950's Gun Crazy through 1973's Badlands and beyond. The cartoons and film clips refer to a vast swath of movies and TV shows, and there's a sequence in which Mickey and Mallory eat psychedelic mushrooms and encounter a Native American that can be read as Stone having a sly laugh at his own fixation with that theme in The Doors.
Finally, there's Downey's reporter, who is at the epicenter of the film's madness, and plays like a particularly gonzo version of Geraldo Rivera at the height of his "Mystery of Al Capone's Vault" inanity, or even Chris Cuomo, venturing into prisons to interview serial killers for his show "Inside Evil."
This last element – the degree to which Natural Born Killers feels sickeningly relevant to our contemporary world – can be almost unbearable at times in the film. Stone was reacting to the madness of his own day, and ends the movie with clips from the manifold strange and brutal episodes of those years, including the Menendez brothers' murder of their parents, the Rodney King assault, the attempt to maim Nancy Kerrigan and the O.J. Simpson trial.
But the contemporary viewer almost can't avoid seeing references in the film to the mass shootings that inundate us now, or the violent clashes between protesters and police that have become such a central part of our lives and the images bombarding us from our phones. The media maelstrom that Stone is both mocking and raging at has done nothing but intensify in the quarter century since Natural Born Killers' release, particularly with the added super-fuel of the internet.
The 20th century, Stone remarked to Rose in their interview, "was a century of violence." Going forward, he believed this madness was "either going to reach absurdly new proportions, or else it's going to die out and people are going to get sick and tired of this whole thing and hopefully we'll move on to more sanity in our public, in our television, in our public behavior."
Given the absurd new proportions we seem to have reached, Natural Born Killer's black humor is distressingly prescient today.