Friday, October 16, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: Natural Born Killers (1994)

Natural Born Killers (1994)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: David Veloz & Richard Rutowski & Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino.
Starring: Woody Harrelson (Mickey Knox), Juliette Lewis (Mallory Knox), Robert Downey Jr. (Wayne Gale), Tom Sizemore (Det. Jack Scagnetti), Tommy Lee Jones (Warden Dwight McClusky), Rodney Dangerfield (Ed Wilson, Mallory's Dad), Edie McClurg (Mallory's Mom), Everett Quinton (Deputy Warden Wurlitzer), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Deputy Warden Kavanaugh), Russell Means (Old Indian).

Natural Born Killers is the ultimate Oliver Stone movie. Perhaps it’s not the best movie he has ever made, but it’s a movie that encompasses all of his obsessions in one ultra-violent, two hour package. The film, like Stone’s Wall Street (1987), seems very much of its time and place – and yet it has a wider scope that prevents it from aging as poorly as Wall Street has in many respects. It’s a film that looks backwards in time for part of its inspiration, and yet was also predictive of the future. It is a bizarre, surreal masterpiece – a film that in many ways haunted me throughout my teenage years, which is why I may have seen this film more than any other film ever made. Revisiting again for the first time in about 10 years (for the record, I didn’t grow tired of it – but like other films I watched on repeat throughout my teen years – Fargo, Pulp Fiction, Boogie Nights, The Usual Suspects, Seven and GoodFellas among them, I felt I needed a good long break from it to hopefully seeing it more clearly when I did finally revisit it), I was my how I still remember every single beat of the film – and yet I’m still discovering new things about it – and am further amazed by just how great it is. It is Stone at his most ambitious – and as a result, is a film I don’t think would have a chance in hell of being made today, even if it is still as relevant as ever.

Stone deliberately makes Natural Born Killers feel like channel surfing – hoping from one bizarre television program to the next, sometimes even giving the audience snippets of commercials. There is a bizarre sitcom “I Love Mallory”, which depicts the sexual abuse suffered by Mallory (Juliette Lewis) at the hands of her father (Rodney Dangerfield), in the style of a classic family sitcom, complete with a laugh track. Because Dangerfield is such a gifted comedic actor – not to mention Edie McClurg, who is mercilessly on point as the nagging TV wife – this segment hits all the beats like of a sitcom, except all the laugh lines are about horrific childhood abuse. In this brief sequence, Stone lays waste to the classic depiction of the nuclear family on television sitcoms – where they are presented as the idealized version of home life, instead showing the precise opposite. He’ll do this throughout the film – with its depiction of a True Crime show hosted by Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), complete with re-enactments of murder, making it clear they are exploiting violence for real life ratings, essentially cheering the murderers on because it makes great television, and later in an interview between Gale and Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson), which was heavily influenced by Geraldo Rivera’s interview with Charles Manson, where on the air Gale acts horrified by Mickey’s answers, and when they’re off air, he’s cheering and even hugging Mickey. Gale doesn’t give a shit about the people Mickey and Mallory have murdered – he just cares how it will play on TV. Downey’s performance as Gale is probably the best he has ever given – an over-the-top, depraved takedown of Geraldo (who apparently met with Stone, and thought he may get to the play the role himself) and others like him. His accent is deliberately bizarre and unplaceable, and his performance begins as unhinged and keeps getting stranger. Watching this film makes me despair that apparently all Downey wants to do now is play Iron Man – we’ve truly lost a talented actor completely if that’s all he does from now on.

The film has been controversial since its release because of its extreme violence – and has even been the subject of a few lawsuits, saying Stone’s film incited real life acts of violence. From a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the film was brought up in the wake of every school shooting – particularly Columbine – as it was cited as the kind of ultra-violent entertainment the shooters enjoyed. If anything, Stone’s film didn’t inspire the killings because of its violence – but it did predict those killings, and what the reaction would become. In the film, as Mickey and Mallory go across the country on their killing spree, they become media superstars – everyone talks about them, debate them – they gather fans, they have people in sympathy with them. Although the internet was barely around in 1994 – and Social Media pretty much non-existent – yet Mickey and Mallory do obsesses about documenting their lives – they always leave one survivor so that they can tell everyone else what happened – because if there’re no record of it happening, it didn’t happen did it? It is true that Mickey and Mallory are painted in a more sympathetic light than anyone else in the movie – Downey’s Gale is a greedy, corporate reporter, Tom Sizemore’s Jack Scagnetti, the cop who chases them down, also wants to make money off of them, and is a murderer and potential rapist himself, Tommy Lee Jones gives a gleefully demented performance as the cruel, corrupt prison warden (for an actor that usually so serious, his performance here at times borders on slapstick). Stone isn’t condoning Mickey and Mallory and their killing spree however – but he is painting it as a product of the larger, corrupt American society that surrounds them. They maybe murderers – but they are also the only ones in the movie with a chance to do something more with their lives. Stone, who has often struggled with romantic relationships in his films, mainly because his female characters are more often than not one dimensional ciphers, has here made his best love story – with moments of genuine romance between Mickey and Mallory amidst all the chaos and violence. Like all the performances in the movie, Harrelson and Lewis are fully committed – willingly going all the way over the top and back with Stone.

The film is also, like JFK, a masterpiece of cinematography and editing. Stone does evoke channel surfing through, but also rapid fire and MTV style editing – proving that, yes, that can work if you know what you’re doing. At times, the film plays like an Avant garde montage of imagery. The prison riot that acts as the films climax is sustained chaos at its finest – maintaining a hectic, breakneck pace throughout. It was apparently this sequence that had the MPAA threaten the film with an NC-17 rating, yet according to Stone, the usually very academic ratings board, which has have strict rules of what you can and cannot do, could not point to anything specific they wanted cut – it was more a feeling of sustained chaos (they eventually compromised, cutting out a few of the more shocking images – a whole in a hand, someone’s head being paraded around on a spike) that have long since been restored for home video. The film is violent from beginning to end – but it establishes the tone of that violence from the first scene – an almost cartoon-like scene in a Diner which Mickey and Mallory lay waste to. Yes, this is violence as entertainment – but it’s satiric in its use of violence, pushing it to its extreme limit to show its utter ridiculousness.

Despite all the violence in Natural Born Killers, that is how I see the film at the end – as a media satire, and one of the best ever made – deserving comparisons to Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979) and James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News (1987). Like those films, Natural Born Killers is born very much out of the frustrations with the industry at its then present point – but has predicted the future degradation of the media landscape in the years since.

But Natural Born Killers does work on many different levels – the media satire, the love story, the violent entertainment, the stoner movie (if you’re the type of person who likes to get stoned and watch hallucinogenic imagery, I assume this one would work well) and others as well. In Roger Ebert’s review of the film back in 1994 he said “seeing this film once is not enough”. I agree. I’m probably on about my 20th viewing – and I still keep coming back for more. It is a masterpiece.

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