The director’s most controversial feature is Natural Born Killers, a hyper, hypnotic collage of sound and image in which Stone points his self-righteous camera at the media, especially television news.
The charge? No, not that the media, which has been a thorn in Stone’s side (and a terrific promotional tool for his movies) is part of the same right wing faction that sent American soldiers to fight an unwinnable war, as well as, in the view of JFK, engineered the murder of a president who was preparing to end that unpopular war upon his reelection. No, Stone sees the media, and TV in particular, as a funhouse mirror that distorts life so dramatically that the viewer can’t distinguish O.J. Simpson from Davy Crockett.
The film follows the exploits of Mickey and Mallory, two victims of child abuse who embark on a killing spree. Some fifty are murdered in the course of the pair’s three week blood feast. They are apprehended and sent to prison, but escape in an explosive climax. Such a plotline could, with a variation here and there, describe dozens of crime movies, most of them inspired by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde.
But Natural Born Killers, being the handiwork of Oliver Stone, uses the plot as a rough sketch for a larger canvas. The killers are of less importance here than television which takes a more than passing interest in the murderous lovers. Mickey and Mallory always leave one witness to their carnage behind to ensure that they get full credit for their deeds. This M.O. is as good as being represented by the William Morris Agency, and Mickey and Mallory are soon the toast of American Maniacs, a weekly TV series devoted to real life crime hosted by a smooth Australian very obviously patterned on A Current Affair reporter Steve Dunleavy. Mickey and Mallory are now superstars, as recognizable as any sitcom star and no less charming.
There’s little about Natural Born Killers that’s subtle. Stone’s message about crime and television’s exploitation of tragedy is hammered home like one of Jack Webb’s moralizing lectures on Dragnet. As in JFK, Stone leaves much of the work to his editors who smoothly blend film shot in different gauges (8mm, 16mm, and 35mm) and artfully provide the film’s protagonists with backdrops that emphasize their own roots as television viewers. Mickey and Mallory make love and the window beside their bed is a movie screen filled with calvary charges. Mickey and Mallory drive down the highway and are surrounded by Indians, etc. The film shifts from color to black and white and an eerie shade of green, and Mickey’s face metamorphoses into the vision of the demon that his actions reveal him to be. Most memorably, Mallory’s abusive home life is presented as a TV sitcom, complete with laugh track and Rodney Dangerfield as her obnoxious, foul-mouthed father.
For all of Stone’s skill, however, Natural Born Killers never hits the bullseye. In attempting to expose television as a material starved medium that has confused notoriety with hard won fame, Stone is a good ten years too late. In an age when Joey Buttofuoco is a household name, anyone who hasn’t gotten the message that television news and entertainment have become one and the same, to the detriment of both, won’t be enlightened by Natural Born Killers. The same basic point was made more effectively eighteen years earlier by Paddy Chayefsky in Network. That film was prophetic. Natural Born Killers is an anomaly in Stone’s career: it’s behind, rather than in tune with, the times.
Whatever it’s failings, Natural Born Killers is worth watching. Its imagery is striking, and the cast is top notch. Woody Harrelson’s Mickey is the boy next door grown to adulthood but not maturity, a man whose external charm is but a thin veneer for the beast within. Juliette Lewis’s Mallory is his female counterpart, a girl whose innocence is thwarted by her environment. The fact that Robert Downey Jr.’s Aussie newsman grates on the nerves is not a criticism of the actor but a compliment. How else should one respond to a parasite? In supporting roles as, respectively, the prison warden and Mallory’s father, Tommy Lee Jones and Rodney Dangerfield are delightfully perverse. The music Stone selected, including Canadian crooner Leonard Cohen warbling "The Future" ("it is murder") and Patsy Cline singing "I’m Back in Baby’s Arms" is terrific, as well. And where else can you hear Bob Dylan gasp his way through the standard "You Belong to Me"?
Brian W. Fairbanks
© Copyright 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks