Monday, March 14, 2011

Natural Born Killers (1994)

Title: Natural Born Killers (1994)

Director: Oliver Stone

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore, Rodney Dangerfield


In Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killer’s Mickey and Mallory Knox, the films murderous protagonists are two character’s who have completely rebelled against society, proclaiming it crazy and worthy of being annihilated. They are a product of dysfunctional families that treated them like garbage and let the television set be their baby sitter. In one extremely original flashback sequence we get to see Mallory’s dysfunctional family life as if we were watching an episode of “I Love Lucy” only this time the show is called “I love Mallory”. Brilliant part about this flashback is that we see Mallory’s father (played by Rodney Dangerfield) as a father who abuses Mallory sexually, he talks dirty to her and beats her all the while we hear a laugh track in the background, as if we were watching a sitcom. This scene is just one of many that let’s us know that Natural Born Killer’s is a film that shows us a society that filters everything they experience through the distorted world view of the media and television. Instead of having a loving mother and father, Mallory and Mickey got sexually, physically and verbally abusive ones. It is no surprise that they are simply a result of the world they live in; when it really comes down to it the finger needs to be pointed at society. “These children that come out at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them. I didn’t teach them, I just tried to help them stand up” - Charles Manson

Mickey and Mallory are rebels every step of the way, they are looking for a way to exist in this world without being held down by its laws and regulations. This is a world that fucked them over, so they are fucking it over right back. Everything they do goes against the establishment, they are angry and pissed off, and so they decide to violently show their hatred towards the system. They want something? They take it. Somebody pisses them off too much? They kill them. They need a car? They steal it. One scene let’s us know that Mickey and Mallory are the ultimate rebels: their marriage scene. They are out in the dessert on route 666, when they decide to take a break and stop in the middle of the road, on a bridge. There in the middle of nowhere, with no bride’s maids or witnesses, Mickey and Mallory say their vows to each other and seal the pact with blood, by cutting each others hands and doing a blood pact. Mickey says “By the power invested in me, as God of my world…” No judge was present, no priest had to say any words, and no papers had to be signed, yet you feel that their love and devotion to each other is genuine and true. And so they go out through the rest of the film, doing what they want, when they want and how they want. Nobody tells these two what they have to do and how to do it. As a psychiatrist says in the film at one point: “Mickey and Mallory know the difference between right and wrong. They just don’t give a damn”

The film goes into similar territory visited by films like A Clockwork Orange (1971) in which Stanley Kubrick presented us with a rebel known as Alex De Large; a young man who refused to follow the rules. He would steal, rape and beat anyone he wanted to, just because he could, because he was young and strong. Yet, what Kubrick’s film shows us is that when you don’t play by the rules, the system can and most likely will force you to play by the rules. Another film that plays with the same ideas as Natural Born Killer’s is director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson (2008). A film about an incorrigible  man who does everything the wrong way: intimidating, kicking and punching anyone who doesn’t agree with him. Bronson is a man who was simply “born bad” and he knows it, destined to live a life in jail for being so. Same as Mickey Knox says that he has found his true calling and says that he is a “Natural Born Killer”. These are people who simply see the world as being completely wrong, the rules of society and the way everything moves in the world is upside down to them. The anger they feel towards the world emerges in different ways. Problem is that when you look at society, you can’t help but agree with them to an extent. Yeah, there is an undeniable truth that things are crazy out there in the world, things are ass backwards wrong. Some people simply know how to deal with the craziness better then others.

This film got a lot of criticism for the violence it portrays. According to some critics, the film incites people to violence, to go out there and cause some damage. I don’t agree so much with this idea. Natural Born Killer’s is simply a reflection of the world we live in, it’s a comment on our current society. Before this film came along, there were already real life characters that behaved exactly the same way that Mickey and Mallory did in the film. What Oliver Stone shows us in this film is nothing new, it is a phenomenon that’s been happening in society for ages. Just like he does with practically every film he has ever done, Oliver Stone is simply showing us the messed up world we live in, through a cinematic reflection. Some people just can’t take the truth that’s all. They apparently live life with shutters in front of their eyes if they see this film and can’t see the truth in it. Society does create characters like these. Look at Charles Manson himself! Oliver Stone mentions that this film is partially based on Charles Manson who has often times stated “My father is the system. I am only what you made me. I am only a reflection of you.” Same thing can be said for Mickey and Mallory.

One of the films main points is that society is bombarded by the media. Television, the internet, newspapers, magazines, billboards, you name it and we are being bombarded by it minute after minute. I mean, you can’t walk two steps without someone trying to sell you something. You can’t even take a piss in a public bathroom without being told what to buy or who to vote for. Now they even have freaking television sets inside of elevators! Some media outlets show violence simply for the ratings they are going to get in return. The film criticizes this through the character of Wayne Gale, a Geraldo Rivera type of television personality who will show anything on television to get some ratings, the more violent the better. Actually, those scenes where Wayne Gale is interviewing Mickey were inspired by Geraldo Rivera's interview to Charles Manson. It’s the kind of sleaze bag ‘journalism’ that proliferated during the 90’s and therefore got criticized a lot, specifically in films. You can see it pop up in various films, the character of the t.v. journalist always getting the negative portrayal, always looking like some sort of vampire thriving on other peoples woes. On this film Mickey and Mallory are presented as children of television, kids who saw way too much of it and were probably raised by it. Mallory’s father is presented as man who drinks beer and smokes cigarettes while watching wrestling in his underwear. Mickey and Mallory’s memories are sitcom infused flashbacks, and finally, their big jailbreak takes place while television cameras are recording the whole event. The media, and its bombardment on our psyche and its influence on how we perceive the world is really felt through this film. So much so that Mickey and Mallory’s final violent statement is aimed at a media mogul! When the media guy pleads for his life Mickey says “You are scum, you did it for the ratings. You don’t give a shit about us or anybody else except yourself”

So yeah, this film was a big controversial thing. The MPAA kept telling Stone to cut out the violence, and Stone was obligated to do so since he was contractually bound to deliver an ‘R’ rated picture. When the film came out it was blamed for quite a few copy cat murders. Yes my friends, some people out there in the real world went out and committed murders, blaming the film for what they did. They stated that they had either seen the film the night before or that they were emulating what they saw on it The big question that pops up for me is: why did so many people connect with this film in a way that would make them want to behave in the exact same way that Mickey and Mallory did in the film? Is it because they feel the same hatred towards the system as Mickey and Mallory did? Did they see Mickey and Mallory as a pitch perfect reflection of themselves? In the end, I am not one of these people that would blame a film or a song for the way people behave. An artist cannot be held responsible for the way somebody will react to his or her art. It is the main reason why all these lawsuits against Stone and his film never pulled through, the first amendment backed Stone up. Plus, what is Oliver Stone doing in this film if not commenting on the way the world already is? Isn’t that what art is supposed to do?

This is precisely the reason why I admire Stone as a filmmaker so much, because he speaks about the way the world is through his films, and most of the time he holds nothing back. Natural Born Killers is like a barrage of information, fast, quick and scattershot, it’s the Oliver Stone way. If you see his films, many of them have that pacing, that frenetic, speeded up sensation, like life is going on in front of you and you better pay attention or you’ll miss something. Natural Born Killers is like a freight train of images, an avalanche of visual information. Stone uses so many styles and formats on this film, he’ll go from black and white, to color, to oversaturation, to shooting in 16mm , to showing projections in the background and he even uses some morphing! I mean, if Mickey and Mallory were breaking all the rules, I’d say that Oliver Stone was right there breaking them with them while making this film.

Final word: Natural Born Killers is a film that needs to be seen more then once. It comments on so many themes, and it encompasses so much that one viewing will simply not be enough for you to absorb everything. Yeah the film is violent, and yeah the main characters are troubled individuals dealing with their own personal demons in an extremely murderous and psychopathic way, but just remember, this film is not made for you to go out there and shoot whoever the hell looks at you the wrong way, its meant for you to learn from it, and see what we should never become: desensitized individuals with no respect or appreciation for human life. This film is there to tell you that not everything the media tells you is true. That the ones behind media don’t care about you, they only care about their ratings, about making their money. It’s here to tell you that maybe you shouldn’t watch television 24 hours a day seven days a week, maybe you should go out there into the world and live your life, go out with a friend, fall in love, have a good time, experience things, grow, care. Just like Mickey says in the film: “The only thing that kills the demon…is love”

Rating: 5 out of 5

A Clockwork Orange (Two-Disc Special Edition)A Clockwork Orange [Blu-ray]Bronson [Blu-ray]Bronson (Widescreen Edition)Natural Born Killers (Unrated Director's Cut) [Blu-ray]Natural Born Killers (Director's Cut)Natural Born KillersNatural Born Killers (R-Rated Cut) (Blu-ray Book)The Ultimate Oliver Stone Collection (Salvador / Platoon / Wall Street / Talk Radio / Born on the Fourth of July / JFK Director's Cut / The Doors / Heaven and Earth / Natural Born Killers / Nixon / U-Turn / Any Given Sunday Director's Cut)


Larry Taylor said...

I can't make it through this. In recent years, I have come around on NBK to recognize what it says about us and I can see the flashes of brilliance in Stone's hyperactivity behind the camera.

For me, however, I cannot engage with the characters the way I really would like to.

Outstanding review.

Anonymous said...

Great review, sir! I've been a big fan of this film since I first saw it--I remember that I was severely sleep deprived and suffering from a concusion, and so unable to rest my weary brain. I rented a few videos to help keep me awake. This was one of them and it really blew my mind, especially in that fractured state!

I'm fascinated with the fact that the original script for NBK was written by Quentin Tarantino, and was actually the second half of a much-larger script...the first half having been turned into True Romance. I'm not sure how many changes were made to the TR half of the script, but I know that the NBK half was drastically altered, and then further "bastardized" by Stone, who really made it his own.

I've always wished that Tarantino would secure the rights to his script, and then make the epic crime film that he had initially envisioned.


Jack L said...

I really liked this, I think it's one of the most misunderstood films of recent years.
Oliver Stone is a genius!

I didn't like the film quite as much as you did though, but I think that's because of my strong dislike for Juliette Lewis, not that I thought she was terrible or anything it just that I cant' stand here...

Also I can't really agree with you on one point, I think the artists have certain responsibilities about what they put out into the world, after all it is going to be seen by many people and will surely influence them in some way or another, thus I think they should be more careful about the images they release into the world. I'm not talking about this film in particular, but I just wish people were more aware of the power of images, especially in film and acted accordingly...

Excellent review man! I love reading your stuff!

Franco Macabro said...

@The Movie Snob: With characters as violent and amoral as Mickey and Mallory are, I just see them as something I wouldnt want to be. I don't connect with them of feel identified with them, but I do appreciate what the film is saying and criticizing about society. Plus, I just love the way the film is directed, the brilliance of the editing and the shots...what I mean to say is I love the film from a technical standpoint as well. Thanks for commenting Movie Snob.

@Johnny Metro: Thanks for your informative comments Johnny, yeah, Tarantino wrote a script that was altered by Stone, hence Tarantino is only given "Story By" credit in the film.

But Tarantino gave it his blessing, he was actually eager to see how Stone had turned his script into his own thing. Im sure Tarantino was just flabbergasted to have a filmmaker that he obviously admired actually take notice on his script and use it to make his own thing.

I would love to see what Tarantino would have done with that script though! But you know what, while watching Natural Born Killers, I do get a whif of Tarantino like dialog every now and then.

@Jack: Thanks for your comments Jack, I agree that filmmakers should be careful with the images they release to the world, after all, film is a powerful medium! It translates ideas effectively to the minds of people, quicker and easier then any other medium.

My take on this matter is that if the films story and themes matter, and they are relevant, and actually say something that justifies all the violence and bloodshed, then far be it from me to tell an artists what he or she can or cant show, freedom of speech is a beautiful thing, and filmmakers talk through their films. If this is truly a free country, then what is the problem with addressing matters like the ones addressed in Natural Born Killers?

According to the law, freedom of speech protects filmmakers, except when the film incites people to partake in violence or unlawful action, thats when the government can take action against a film or a work of art. This film depicts Mickey and Mallory as villains, as psychopathic murderers. Troubled human beings. The film is not telling people to be like these characters, its telling them to NOT be like Mickey and Mallory.

That scene where they kill the old indian demonstrates that they know they are doing wrong when they kill an innocent human being..."they just dont give a damn"

This is mainly the reason why in films of this nature, characters always have to pay for what they have done, in A Clockwork Orange, Bronson, and on this film, they all end up in jail, demonstrating that evil acts have bad results.

What I am against is films like A Serbian Film, which I have not seen yet, and I am avoiding because from what I've read about it, its empty, shallow, shock value that says nothing, it simply wants to shock for shocks sake.

Thanks for your comments everyone!

Unknown said...

Awesome review on one of Stone's masterpieces. This film has become a fascinating snapshot of where our culture was in the mid-1990's and the scary thing is that it has only gotten worse.

It is incredible to think that Stone was able to push through such an angry, volatile film through the system and actually get it released! That would never happen now. It would have to be made independently. But I'm glad he made it and held up a crazy, funhouse mirror to our culture.

Great cast - the breakout role for Woody Harrelson that showed he could drama AND comedy in equal parts. His performance in this film is nothing short of astonishing. Normally, I can't STAND Juliette Lewis but she is well-cast in this film as Harrelson's soul mate. The scene she has with Tom Sizemore in her prison cell are creepy and intense!

And then you've got the likes of Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Downey Jr.... amazing! Also, what an incredible soundtrack - crammed with all kinds of fantastic bands, from NIN to Lard to L7 to Cowboy Junkies to Leonard Cohen... Such a great film.

Franco Macabro said...

I agree J.D., a film like this would never get out today, which just shows that 'the system' has got an even tigther grip on the media and what it portrays. The almighty MPAA has gotten stronger over the years.

Im always amazed when films with a rebellious edge make it out into the world, I was so surprised when V for Vendetta got out, such a rebellious film, and it was funded by a studio, and it was a hit.

Yeah, I forgot to mention the soundtrack, it certainly is a keeper, I remember thinking while watching it: I need to buy this freaking soundtrack!

Agree about the performances, they are all awesome, I also cant stand Juliette Lewis half the time, but every now and again she blows me away with something awesome like this film. She's a great actress for playing whacked out characters, like that character she played in a film called Kalifornia, ever seen that one? In it she plays another outlaw/crazy girl who goes on a road trip of insanity with Brad Pitt, highly recommend it.

Unknown said...

Yes, I've seen KALIFORNIA. Not bad. Beautiful shot and she and Brad Pitt were pretty good in it. She's also not half bad in WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE as well.

Direct to Video Connoisseur said...

1994 was such a great year for movies, including Tarentino's own Pulp Fiction. I liked your take on this, and I'm probably closer to your viewpoint. I saw it as extreme, in your face satire, as opposed to the glorification of a mass-murdering couple, and I think you're right to point out that Stone should be allowed to do that without worrying about crazy people not grasping the message. It's not like he's a politician or talk show host inciting people to violence, the movie is pretty outlandish with a very exaggerated and distorted reality-- which was what made it so great, and the point could be made that had he been able to make it as extreme as he wanted, i.e. with no MPAA interference, it might have had much less of an influence on crazy people.

venoms5 said...

I thought this was a good, manic little movie. Personally, I don't think filmmakers need be accountable for anything they create in their art. That's why there's a rating system. We as a race of people have our own minds. Regardless of how we were brought up, broken home, abusive childhood what have you, we all have the propensity to make our own choices, good or bad. The actions of weak minded people like this are incapable of making logical cohesive decisions on their own. The fuse is, and was already there. It wouldn't necessarily require a movie to ignite it. These individuals are already disturbed and no movie, nor piece of music made them that way.

The controversy surrounding violence in movies was really at an apex during the 1980s. It was all over television day and night. I lost an entire poster collection after my grandparents feared I'd grow up a serial killer and burned all my horror movie posters and some other pieces of memorabilia.

The Manson Murders were likely the first glorification of Violence thru the Media making them out to be "superstars". The Mickey Mallory team kind of reminded me of the Charles Starkweather-Caril Fugate spree killers of the late 1950s.

Great review as always, Fran. We must be thinking the same things for the moment. I just posted a spree killer movie review myself, lol.

Franco Macabro said...

@J.D.: I thought she was good in Mixed Nuts and Histerical Blindness as well, come to think of it she was great in From Dusk Till Dawn as well. But her career has definetly taking a downward spiral...I never saw The Other Sister, but I hated the previews with a passion. Plus now she's into making cameo appearances in comedies, so shes kind of lost it acting wise. It seems she cares more about her musical career.

@Direct to Video Connoisseur: You can see the deleted scenes on the dvd, and there is also a directors cut of the film available, but I havent seen that one. I hear its got more nudity and violence. I need to check it out at some point.

@Venom5: Totally agree with you on that one Venom, these crazy folks who went and did all these copy cat murders. Thing is most people dont identify with these characters in a way that they would want to be like them, I mean no one in their right might should, its a critique. Mickey and Mallory are monstrous products of the system we live in, as are the people who commited these copy cat murders.

Ha! I totally understand you on your parents making you throw away posters and movies! I went through the same exact thing! Man I threw away my horror movie collection because my parents thought they could bring demons to the house! Ha! Of course, I've recovered every single one of those movies..but I also threw away some an awesome comic book collection, with some comics that are now freaking priceless. I've managed to recover most of them through the magic of internet, but some were completely lost to me. Like McFarlane's whole Amazing Spider-Man run! Sadness.

Now that you mention manson, there is a television film that they made called Helter Skelter that depicts the whole thing rather well, recommend it! It shows everything from how Manson lived out in the middle of nowhere in a self created community with no laws or regulations, till his followers commit the murders..and it goes all through to the whole media superstar phase. Pretty decent film.

I'll check out the review man!

Anonymous said...

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