Oliver Stone: Natural Born Killers (1994) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
26Apr/130

Oliver Stone: Natural Born Killers (1994)

Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) are the latest media sensation.  They kill their way across America leaving one victim alive to tell the story of what happened and to leave no question about who murdered who.  Is it a party or a compulsion?  Does it really matter when so many cameras are on?  Oliver Stone directs their story with an eye on the media and a whole lot of blood ready to spill.This is how the end of the world startsKyle Commentary BannerWe have reached it. We have reached a point where, to paraphrase something a friend of mine once said, “the Oliver Stone has turned against us.” Sweet gentle Jesus I hate this movie. I hate it so bad that trying to craft a witty attack just now, I blacked out and came to teeth-clenched in a blind rage several hours later. For weeks now we've seen Stone's style become more and more distinct, a sensationalism that provided JFK with an energy essential to its success—now form has overtaken function and left it dying by the side of the road. Natural Born Killers is a pretentious and shallow exercise in beating the audience over the head with ideas that are perfectly evident on their own, as the director stands just off screen wide-eyed and muttering “Brilliant!” to himself.

I see what Stone is doing here. I get it. He wants to use the same aesthetic tactics of news coverage and dramatic reenactments on prime-time news programs to show how the media is complicit in social violence by sensationalizing real-world crimes. The problem is that he puts these aesthetic maneuvers at the forefront. They aren't simply tools utilized alongside elements of the plot and performances to create an indictment of the media—they are the indictment. Everything is hyper-stylized and exaggerated to a point of lunacy, and not only is this insanely distracting, but it also prevents us from seeing the characters or events as anything other than a bizarre, prolonged cartoon.

The first scene of the movie alone makes this approach unbearable. We get a camera that's constantly moving, multiple types of film stock (including the wavy black-and-white familiar from reenactments on true-crime shows), jump cut after jump cut, and an idiotic shot of a knife flying end over end through the air to a sudden and completely out-of-the-blue classical music track. What is this supposed to achieve? To get us to view the movie as a meta-fiction blurring the line between “real-life” reenactments and entertainment? To do that it would have to actually resemble the former, not simply overuse a single identifiable technique. To criticize our tendency to view violence as entertainment rather than tragedy? Then why the need to so blatantly turn the act into a cartoon?Most definitelyMuch of the problem is that Stone is making up his own rules as he goes along. The characters are supposed to be caricatures, yes, but they're grounded in a satirical view of reality that he has made up entirely from scratch. You don't get to create a version of the world that eagerly delivers up the problems you want to condemn, and then pretend that in reacting against those contrived points you've said something profound. The movie is like a walking, talking straw man who has wandered into your house and refuses to leave.

Stone is still an incredibly talented filmmaker, but at this point he seems to have lost his ability to put his raw talent to use to a greater purpose. There are sequences that are successful in their own right, but their effects don't contribute to any discernible larger goal, or at least not one worth undertaking in a full-length film. There's a funny scene during a shootout where a reporter remarks “Mickey's quite virile,” and “he has a very large gun.” This is blatant enough to be funny while still running close enough to real attitudes—unfortunately it's about the most subtle part of the movie.

I'm railing on the technique, which is terrible, but none of this even approaches the utterly reprehensible way violence (some of it sexual violence) is put at the service of what is essentially a self-important Looney Tunes episode from hell. That takes the movie from annoying to disgusting, and turns its intent from shallow to morally bankrupt. We're almost at a turning point, where Stone will transform from a sharp and politically relevant filmmaker to a benign mass in the body of cinema. During the first part of this project, I thought that was the central tragedy of his career. Now I'm just glad he never made something like this again.There's our glorious leaderAndrewCommentaryBannerPart of the reason we’ve been watching these movies is to try and place them in a larger context especially since Stone was such a high-profile director for then about ten years.  You’re casting the net of criticism pretty wide and a lot of my response to your questions was, “Yes – and?  Why is it making you so mad?”

One thing that I’ve been repeatedly struck with Stone’s movies is how prescient they’ve been and we’ve hit the apex with Natural Born Killers.  Putting it at the time it was released the 24-hour news cycle was finally getting its stride as the most asinine thing on television with constant breaking updates and growing reliance on graphics and headlines.  We had constantly televised trials of rape and murder becoming steadily more ludicrous and, yes, cartoonish.  This was not the time for something subtle about the dumbing effect of style over substance in news (for that movie go watch Broadcast News) but for someone to brain us repeatedly over the head with what we were, and continue to be, mindlessly enjoying.

Starting with your concerns about the style – of course it’s a cartoon.  It needs to be both the darkest reflection of and road-map to the expose's of the future.  The opening scene that bugged you so much is a perfect microcosm of perverted American entertainment.  Stone specifically let’s that bullet hang in the air before plunging into the victim as a reminder that someone it’s presented as news but, like the actual news, someone is still creating their own cartoon reality.  The music, performances, and visuals all culminate in the moment where the POV is like a video game with the floating gun hand.  It doesn’t matter who gets killed so long as the trigger is pulled.Trustworthy to a tWhat would a subtle version of this material look like?  I doubt it would be effective at all, and it certainly wouldn’t be audacious film-making.  This is why I do not, at all, like you saying that Stone is using a single identifiable technique the whole time.   You pointed out several in the opening scene, but I’d also like to add the tripping-out drug sequence with a motionless car under blood red lights where demons are rear-projected following them the whole time.  There are also the sitcom sequences explaining Mallory’s past with a grainy nightmare of a multi-cam setup and a very excitable audience.  Each section plays by its own rules just fine, and there is no one unified technique because each movement is a perversion of a separate American entertainment trope.

Which brings me to the caricatures of Mickey, Mallory, and the rest of the cast - they are not caricatures at all, but new-media twisted versions of archetypes long established by film.  Divined to their essence Mickey and Mallory aren’t so far removed from Bonnie and Clyde (featuring the cool aloof of Americans influenced by the French New Wave) or Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargis (from Badlands, very much another product of the director-driven ‘70s).  They’re just another manifestation of a story constantly repeating itself in America, this time funneled away from judgment because then we wouldn’t have a news story?  The same idea applies to the supporting cast like the warden, in another excellent turn from Tommy Lee Jones, who adorned a John Waters mustache and watched Cool Hand Luke one too many times.

This is the manic genius of Stone’s film.  He’s created characters that cannot die because they’re reproduced by the system of representation that gave them birth.  Stories that once had an end only exist in a perpetual nightmare because now we depend on that nightmare to stay interested, entertained, engaged, and alive.  The tragedy isn’t that Stone made this film, but that he had so much material to draw from.A special dislikin'

So, where's the controversy?

Tiny Kyle Commentary The violence and the film's approach to it. By glorifying the central characters and the acts they commit with techniques that seem to encourage the audience to enjoy what they're seeing (though it's still impossible for me to see anything enjoyable here), Stone crosses into firmly uncomfortable territory. You hit on the kinship with films like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands, and there is a hypocrisy in praising movies like those, which romanticize such figures, while decrying news outlets that give us the real-world equivalents. Those films present us with a fictional dramatic context within which to situate our response—we're not actually enjoying violence in Bonnie and Clyde, we're enjoying the way they embody anti-authority sentiments, etc. Of course this isn't really the case, and the violence serves an entertainment value whether we like it or not, but it's easy enough not to face that. Natural Born Killers asks the audience to enjoy the story and root for the characters as they are, which is uncomfortable.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryThis is going to be one of those rare moments where we mostly agree about what makes the film controversial instead of how.  First off, my point with Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands is that it does not romanticize the characters in the slightest.  At minimum, Natural Born Killers is like the final death dance of B&C filtered through a very angry man with a lot of editing tools.  We're not enjoying the violence in B&C, Badlands, or Natural Born Killers.  You seem stuck on this idea that what we're seeing is supposed to be enjoyable when, after the nauseating murders at the cafe, we watch Mallory dance with headache-inducing angels while Mickey takes a piss in the field.  It's anti-entertainment without a hero to rally around and the idea that you think the film is rooting for Mickey and Mallory is boggling.  The only reason people get this idea, and part of why Natural Born Killers still lingers so well, is that they don't die in the end.  The violence isn't entertaining, our protagonists are terrible, their antagonists are likewise, and is presented as nauseatingly and creatively as possible.  It's uncomfortable, alright, but not for the reasons you pose.Rage against the machine feels appropriate here

How did Stone hit the zeitgeist this time?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThis may be central to my utterly baffled response that anyone would willfully watch the movie—I have a hard time buying that, even at the time, the notion that the 24-hour news culture was exploiting real-world crimes for ratings by creating a narrative of violence would have been anything new or surprising. And since the movie doesn't do anything further with that than reflect that basic idea in a flashy, over-the-top way, it seems like it's blowing a lot of hot air. It isn't that he fails to capture the zeitgeist—it's that he doesn't do much that's interesting in the process.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryYou can go online right now and find a picture of a murderer dressed as a clown and people making videos explaining that he was brainwashed.  Another killer smirked his way through sentencing while wearing a t-shirt that said KILLER.  One major news organization recently demanded we, as a country, villainize an entire religion (again).  Another one summons holographic sheep and members of the Black Eyed Peas.  Each of these moments is punctuated by periods of rapid headlines, shaky cameras, and boasting from people who proclaim to know better.

Natural Born Killers was the darkest extreme of what we could be when it was released, now it so thoroughly resembles what we see on a daily basis that it's almost quaint.Fade to noise

That's fine, but is it any good?

Tiny Kyle Commentary This is one of the most annoying movies I have ever seen, impossible to maintain any interest in aside from the few moments where the stand-alone value of the performances can shine through. If it was only that, then it would be relatively harmless. It's not quite that it's exploitative either, because in order to be that it would need some shred of entertainment value (though I think Stone intends there to be some).

The film seems to be trying to make its point by doing literally the same thing it's criticizing (which is different than glorifying the same thing it's criticizing, an important distinction), but exaggerating it to an insane level and then hiding behind satire. I don't doubt that Stone was prescient in wanting to make a movie about the effect contemporary media was having on the way we viewed our society, but here he starts with an Idea and we never move any further. After 2 agonizing hours of ADD and experimental editing, we never get any further.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryI admit that I had a weird reaction formalizing my opinion this second time around because this is only the second Stone film we've watched so far I'd seen previously.  I'm still a huge fan because of the way that Stone holds absolutely nothing back.  But my hesitation at loving it comes with the passage of time because of how much it resembles our actual media landscape now.  I can still strongly vouch it for all of the performances, Stone's recklessness, and timely narrative but with a caveat.

I still completely disagree with you that this film is in any way meant to be enjoyable in the way we typically mean it.  Natural Born Killers is unrelentingly bleak, nasty, violent, and aggressive in a way that already turned many people off and will continue to do so in the future.  I recommend it because it's unique art that's not designed to be pleasing in the slightest, that rare tightrope of a category between utter reprehension and complete brilliance.  It's clear where we both fall on this one.

Next week: Nixon!

Stone with text

 

Posted by Andrew

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