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.
No Country for Old Men is a faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. It was impossible to foresee such a remarkable fusion of genius between the Coen’s and McCarthy. Both harness a proud idiomatic style, but down to the weird rhythms and pregnant pauses the two form one of the great literary/cinematic matches in recent memory. Perhaps long-term memory. The Coen’s precise ambiguities blend perfectly with McCarthy’s ability to fill one conversation between two strangers with the wisdom of the world. Especially in Tommy Lee Jones’s monologues, we hear a type of earnest realism — somehow simultaneously so contrived and so faithful to our imaginations.
The denizens of No Country are not interested in us. They don’t want to be our friends. Anton Chigurh is at once an animal and a god. He is on a mission seemingly more powerful than even he. And the mission is a spiritual one. There is a scene inside of a gas station that, not unexpectedly, pits old against young. The elderly clerk cannot come close to understanding Chigurh’s deranged existentialism. Like many of the other scenes in the film, this one seems to hold the mysteries of the film — presenting an incomprehensible and unstoppable force with simultaneous belief and disbelief in mysticism. “It will become just another coin… which it is.”
We are trapped into accepting Llewelyn Moss as our hero. We meet him looking through his own scope and endure a regular cycle of point-of-view shots until his death. Indeed, this is what makes his death so unbelievable. So frustrating, even. Some have complained about the offscreen death of our hero but we are never meant to see him die. We are led through a gripping, near-silent chase for 60 minutes — always aware of the sheriff lagging behind. Just as he is allowed to engage in the chase, we assume his point of view. One step behind the rest. Like the sheriff, Llewelyn is a man who understands the operations and mysteries of the land but cannot comprehend the ghosts. This is what makes them old.
One character calls it “The Dismal Tide” of youth coming in. We are meant to think of Chigurh and his final scene. He is a ghost, capable of enduring all. However, it is right to call it a “Tide.” For the tides come in and go out regardless of our small plans. Youth force out the old regardless of theirs. But it isn’t even that simple. Not only can the old not comprehend the young — they were once the young themselves.
The Coen’s have presented a complicated perspective on their interpretation of the film’s style. Thus, a flurry of nonsense has been written about No Country. However, it is impossible to deny the influences of silent Westerns, Sam Peckinpah, and Hitch. Hitch would have been proud of the Coen’s and their astonishing mastery of editing to serve suspense. There are long chase sequences. Twenty to thirty minutes of minimal dialogue. But you never look away. The cuts are so specific. They are more than motivated. They’re somehow essential. The impressive thing here is not the silence, it’s the fact that you’ll never notice if you’re not listening. When characters do talk, their dialogue seems to drop away just when we least expect and least desire but always at the perfect time. Visually, it is impossible to deny Peckinpah’s eye on the West. Horizon’s are mostly in the middle of the frame, unlike Ford and Mann. Things are arid and empty. No Country harnesses the old idea of the West that has been lost on my generation — the existence of a place populated by another side of the human spirit; castaways, ghosts, gods, and prostitutes. The landscape isn’t one that crushes or waits. It’s merely the place where the coin is flipped and fate is decided.
What ultimately lends No Country with enduring greatness is its overarching simplicity. The Coen’s are always looking back and revisiting formal structures. Consider how the plot breaks down — Good Guy finds Money. Bad Guy hunts Good Guy. The states are clear and so are the roles. These characters might be archetypes, but they inhabit a separate realm. Only something so simple can harvest the contradictions of humanity. Only in creating these timeless, ghostly creatures can we see so deep into ourselves. The film is a triumph of the highest order.