Natural Born Killers [Stone, 1994]
In a time where many are reconsidering the shape that violence takes in the media and entertainment, Natural Born Killers makes a statement. Directed by Oliver Stone in 1994, it’s a stylized road movie with a startling amount of violence – even for a contemporary audience. Though Stone directed and manipulated the script, it was originally conceived by none other than everyone’s darling, Quentin Tarantino, which couldn’t be more obvious. NBK tells the story of Mickey and Mallory Knox, newlyweds who become mass murderers. The film is not for the weak stomached for two reasons: 1) it’s a two-hour bloodbath and 2) it’s filmed in a way that despises right angles, celebrates the psychedelic, and rejects the tripod. It offers a strong visceral experience with almost no emotional or intellectual payoff.
Natural Born Killers tries very hard to join the lineage of You Only Live Once, Bonnie & Clyde, Pierrot le fou, and Badlands. Stylistically, it is under the influence of Arthur Penn and some other drugs. The edits are like lightning. Some sections play in bold, tinted colors – like we’re seeing the film through Mickey’s red glasses. The second half is not as relentless as the first and the style becomes more palatable. However, the intellectual aim of NBK never blooms. Drawing broad connections between the media frenzy surrounding violence and the act of violence itself resonates especially well today, 8 days after the massacre in Aurora, CO. But NBK is a commentary so far removed from reality that it loses strength. This is a common problem in Tarantino’s films. There’s no danger. There’s no vigor. In fact, there’s nothing in them that hasn’t already happened in a movie, which is how QT has come to understand the world. As a result, his own movies fail to communicate anything except as a vague meta-commentary on cinema. I can only pray that this changes someday.
The troubling thing about NBK is that Oliver Stone’s involvement should have been the perfect ingredient. A veteran of the service, he has proved himself able to translate the terrifying realities of violence to a rewarding cinematic experience in Platoon and Scarface. But here, it is so wrapped up in its own intoxicating style and inertia that it follows through on Tarantino’s ailment. There are so few moments of genuine danger in NBK. It could be argued that this exactly is the point – to make a film of enveloping psychosis that we actually buy into the populist frenzy surrounding Mickey and Mallory. But all of that has already been said with eloquence and grace in Malick’s astonishing debut, Badlands. NBK shares a lot of DNA with that film. We can imagine someone handing the same one sentence premise to a Harvard philosophy graduate and a video store clerk with Badlands and NBK as the products. See the difference? NBK is also in the deep shadow of David Lynch — specifically Wild at Heart. Tarantino makes no effort to conceal Lynch’s influence and it lies heavy on this film. There’s plenty of shade in Lynch’s shadow, but NBK is definitely in it.
NBK does have a spectacular ability to reveal how trauma influences memory and experience. Through the radical style that Stone develops, he is allowed to engage in visual surrealism that would be taboo in most other discussions of the subject. The predictably damaged pasts perpetually haunt Mickey and Mallory, most often during moments of sex or violence (which also happens to be the entire movie).
By the end of the film, it is clear that the authors are trying to comment on culture more than violence. But what good is it to show violence as a plaything in order to comment how violence is a plaything? Natural Born Killers lacks contact with actual consequence or fear and it fails to reveal anything that we didn’t already know. When we’re done congratulating ourselves on understanding that the media has a negative impact on the plague of violence, we can work on getting that to stop. But hey, maybe I’m just really missing the boat on this one.