By John H. Foote
28. NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)
The most controversial film of the decade was also among the most brilliant, a daring picture utilizing different stocks of film and video, animation, breaking all the rules and making them work. Oliver Stone’s film Natural Born Killers is among the darkest masterpieces of its time. In light of the O.J. Simpson case, Stone wanted to explore the celebrity of killers, and how the news media elevates them to the status of modern-day outlaw. He sought to make a film that showed they were not anything as they were painted, they were harsh, cold blooded killers, nothing more and celebrating them was a sad testament to society.
The great blackness of this story is that we like Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis), they are funny, despite their murderous ways and lack of humanity and empathy for a single human being, with the exception of each other. Fast paced from the startling beginning which sees one of their murders, actually several in a roadside diner, the film hurtles from one moment to the next, the narrative as breezy as a light comedy, though bathed in blood and murder. Moving from the diner, the screen explodes in a mock sitcom based on those of the fifties such as I Love Lucy, this one titled I Love Mallory, starring Mallory herself. Her family is horribly dysfunctional and run with an iron fist by her father, a wild-eyed Rodney Dangerfield at his most demonic. Clearly he molests Mallory, makes no secret of it, and his wife knows it but is terrified to say a word, because he routinely beats her. When Mallory appears the audience erupts in applause but then her father begins to torment her, with threats of sexual assault, bringing the audience to greater cheers. Enter the meat delivery man, Mickey, who leaves Mallory smitten. They leave together, stealing the father’s car, but Mickey is arrested and thrown in prison. In a bold sequence using animation for part of it, Mickey breaks out of prison and comes for his girl. But first he has murder on the mind, and he viciously kills Mallory’s unrepentant father. Together they pour lighter fluid over her mother as she sleeps, and light a flame, and having tied her down, leave her to a fiery death. To her wide eyed brother she tells him that he is free, leaving the 10-year-old with a smile on his face, though not sure of how he will live.
Mickey and Mallory hit the road and scorch the earth as they move through the United States, killing and slaughtering everyone in their path. They commit themselves to one another but are not immune from jealousy. Mickey is prone to kidnapping pretty girls and making them watch he and Mallory while they have sex, which often enrages Mallory. After each crime they make a decision to leave one person alive, to tell the world who did this, to let everyone know they lived through a Mickey and Mallory bloodbath.
Finally, after a shootout, they are wounded and seek shelter with an old Native American shaman (Russell Means) who takes them in, feeds them and offers them a place to stay. Alarmed that his tent has rattlesnakes moving about, they are cautious but sleep the night. Nightmares haunt Mickey and startleds he accidentally shoots the old man, sending them on the run. As they run from the tent they find the grounds covered in rattlesnakes and are bit a few times, but they keep running, getting to an all-night drug store. Running in looking for anti-bite medicine they do not realize while they are taking what they need and killing the young attendant, the police have surrounded the place, and lie in wait for them. They capture Mallory and threaten her with harm in order to get Mickey to put down his weapon, which he does, and they are dragged to prison after being severely beaten.
More than a year later a trashy TV reporter, Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), the host of American Maniacs, an exploitive TV tabloid program, has been granted access to Mickey for a first ever prime time interview. As much as he wants insight into the killer, he wants also to goad, to taunt, to make Mickey angry. Meanwhile the arresting officer at the drugstore, Scagneti (Tom Sizemore), is visiting Mallory, attempting to talk to her while she sings over his words. The sleazy cop attempts to seduce her, but she viciously beats him senseless. Upstairs, Mickey uses the beginning of the riot to his advantage, talking and joking with the cameraman and guards, suddenly grabbing a shotgun and cutting down everyone in sight except Wayne Gale, who he takes with him to Mallory’s cell. Though the guards have subdued her with tear gas, Mickey shoots them all dead, and is finally, while TV cameras capture it, with his girl again.
Now they have to get out alive, as the riot is raging and the crooked Warden (Tommy Lee Jones) realizes they will try for an escape. What can he do, with the guards badly losing the riot as the prisoners kill everyone they can? With Wayne Gale in tow, Mickey and Mallory head for the exit, Gale finding his own natural born killer within, grabbing a pistol and shooting as many guards as he can. Trapped by the Warden, Mallory grabs Gale’s hand and blows a hole in it, as the prisoners charge the doomed warden, taking his head off and putting it on a stick.
The two lovers get out, and arrive at the woods, where they kill a stunned Gale, who thought he was now one of their gang and would go with them. No chance, they gun him down with no remorse, with no guilt. As Leonard Cohen’s mournful “The Future” plays over the final scenes, we see Mickey and Mallory driving into the sunset, their children in the back of the van, a perfect happy American family.
My first thought as the credits rolled was “JESUS!”, what a stunning, black satire, it was unlike anything we had ever seen before. As O.J. Simpson, the Mendez brothers and, in Canada, Paul and Karla Homolka became household names through their criminal activities, the manner in which the news, all news, was reported was called into question. The story, initially by Quentin Tarantino, was further worked on by the film’s director Oliver Stone, Richard Ruskowski and David Veloz, turning it into the stunning often seething satire it became. Mickey and Mallory become famous as killers, without their crimes, they remain poor white trash, nothing more. But once they hit the road massacring everyone in sight, and for the sheer fun of it, they become modern day gunslingers that attract the attention and sadly the admiration of the public.
The faux sitcom, complete with laugh track involving a filthy Rodney Dangerfield as her abusive father was darkly brilliant, both sickening and oddly funny for the sheer bravery in making the scene. The groping of Lewis certainly crossed a line of decency, but the performance of Dangerfield was so powerful it had to be praised. Simply one of the most astonishing sequences in modern movies.
I am not sure the accomplishments of Stone as director have ever been truly appreciated. Beyond the big, bold strokes with which he painted the film, there were little details which added so much. The laugh track over the I Love Mallory episode, making clear that, despite how dark and menacing the episode was, it was OK to laugh, though it really was not. Mallory cursing at Mickey when he cuts her, bonding them together, Mallory smacking him on the head after killing the old Native (“bad, bad, bad, BAD”) speaks volumes about their relationship, Mallory singing over the cop’s questions until finally, foolishly he enters her cell, far too close to her to be safe. And with Mickey, watch the way he carefully seduces the entire camera crew and the guards, regaling them with funny stories and his dark personality, brilliant details. Incredibly we know that Mickey and Mallory are monsters, vile sociopathic killers, but the great accomplishment of this film is that Stone and the actors humanize them. Both came from abusive dysfunctional households; did they ever really have a chance for normalcy in their lives?
Woody Harrelson was an interesting, but ultimately perfect choice as Mickey. Popular as an actor on TV for years as dim bulb Woody on Cheers, he came from a strange past, his father was serving time for murder. Did he have that darkness in him? Maybe thought Stone, so he took a risk. Harrelson was chilling as Mickey, especially after shaving his head, when the lighting captured him making him look like a demon. A commanding presence on screen, the actor was extraordinary as Mickey, truly a terrifying performance and one of the most authentic portrayals of a serial killer ever put on screen.
Juliette Lewis gives the finest performance of her career here, just three years after she emerged in Cape Fear (1991) for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. Pretty in an offbeat way, great eyes, she is electrifying as Mallory, capturing the pain of an abused child in her soulful eyes, showing the terror she has of her father, through to the anger she possesses deep within that makes her a killer. She toys with the cop in her cell like a cat plays with its prey before devouring it, often eating it alive, and Lewis is never less than superb. Why was she not nominated for Best Actress?
Robert Downey Jr. is a repellant human being as Wayne Gale, who does nothing that is not for his own glory or profit. A scumbag of a human being, as is Scagneti (Sizemore) asking us who is worse, the prisoners or the keepers??
Tommy Lee Jones is stunning cartoon like as the Warden of the prison, walking with his jutting jaw, his eyes moving back and forth, watching and taking in everything, but realizing he is not getting out of the riot alive. He thinks he is control because he has fooled himself into thinking so, but he has no chance and I think deep down he knows that fact.
Bombastic, raging, loud, explosive, the film is built like an action thriller with so much more to say, so much deeper and certainly more insidious than anything put on the screen before. Shot like an experimental film, I find the film utterly fascinating and obviously one of the finest films of the decade.
Most feature films have between 600-700 edits or cuts. There are 3,000 in Natural Born Killers, fast cuts, hurtling us from moment to moment in the film, from scene to scene and the cinematography plays with various sticks, something Stone did with JFK (1991) as well. Here he goes a step further, using animation, 8 mm, 16mm, 35 mm, and video, television all merged together and cut together beautifully to give us this chilling piece of cinema. The effect is as though we are inside the twisted minds of Mickey and Mallory, and the insanity of the riot.
Natural Born Killers displayed an audacious artist at the leak of his powers, willing to evolve, to risk, to take chances as an artist few were taking. In many ways the film felt like a rock video with its fast cuts, and shock images, yet the narrative kept it as a feature film. Alarming in its realism, shocking in its subject matter it was easily among the year’s best films and the most controversial of the year.
The Academy displayed a definite lack of courage in not nominating the film for a single Academy Award, not even cinematography, editing or sound, but also for the some of the top awards.
When Mickey says, “I’m just a natural born killer” and we believe him, there is no doubt of the monster he is, of the type of monsters we watch the media celebrate.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.