Reeling BackwardRating: 5 of 5 yaps
Natural Born Killers (1994)
Personal and cultural memory does not reside in a photograph or film image so much as it is produced by it. So fittingly wrote Marita Sturken in her essay regarding Oliver Stone, whose films provide iconic images with which to crystallize such watershed events and figures as the Vietnam War, the JFK assassination, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush.
While all of Stone’s films both imaginatively and accurately display this country’s cultural landscape, none are as vivid as 1994’s “Natural Born Killers.”
A road movie following two serial killers, Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), and their rise to fame, the film was initially intended to be an action movie, “something Arnold Schwarzenegger would be proud of” (as Stone is quoted in “Chaos Rising: The Storm Around ‘Natural Born Killers’ ”).
Also noted in “Chaos Rising” is the project’s evolution into a rhetorical bomb aimed at the circus surrounding criminal cases such as the O.J. Simpson trial and the Rodney King incident regarding police brutality. The documentary goes on to reveal how the film ultimately became a hard-hitting look at the omnipresent obsession with violence and Stone’s fantasy of America’s collective glamorization of it — a rather dramatic departure from Quentin Tarantino’s original screenplay, which was a straightforward grindhouse spectacle.
“Natural Born Killers” is the purest kind of rhetoric — a document born freshly out of, and commenting on, the time in which it was conceived and released. It’s a diagnosis of the ’90s mindset, the sickness metastasized by the media.
But Stone’s film is hardly an objective piece of journalistic filmmaking. While he does ground it in a more recognizable contemporary reality than Tarantino would have, he wields his camera like a funhouse mirror into the zeitgeist, turning America’s desensitization to violence into a dazzling nightmare.
“Natural Born Killers” is considered one of Stone’s most polarizing and influential films, landing a spot on Entertainment Weekly’s list of the “25 Most Controversial Movies Ever” as well as being linked to more real-world violence than any other film preceding it.
The fact that the film had precisely the kind of violence-inducing impact Stone tried to prevent with it makes the movie worthy of study — a ghost of the past that needs to be confronted for the sake of the even more violent and media-centric present and future.
A satire in every sense of the word, the film wags its finger not only at the media but all those obsessed with violence to the point of glamorizing it — whether intentionally or unintentionally. In other words, it is pointed precisely at the kind of people that criticize the film for inspiring violence and, in turn, only increase its viewership and seductive appeal. In that sense, the film exudes the same mystique as Mickey and Mallory and the real-life killers who inspired them.
Few films crystallize a collective, blood-soaked consciousness in as clear, accurate and timely a manner as “Killers.” Characters even make the kind of “cryptic allusions” found among most collective fantasies. One such instance finds an impressionable young punker referring to Mickey and Mallory as “the best thing to happen to mass murder since Manson.” In turn, Stone imaginatively interprets this perspective by showing the world of media-glorified crime through the kind of flashy MTV style to which such a ’90s-era rebel would respond, quickly cutting to images of Mickey and Mallory on countless magazine covers draped in rock-star garb.
Another cryptic and unsettling allusion, perhaps born out of this glamorization, was made to the film itself when Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold referred to the morning of the massacre as “the holy April morning of NBK.” Like the spectators on the sidelines of Mickey and Mallory’s killing spree, they saw homicide as a noteworthy and influential spectacle, thus fulfilling the film’s prophetic vision of murder as a sort of national sport.
This attitude is powerfully embodied by a scene in which historic footage streams outside the window of Mickey and Mallory’s hotel room, making it seem as though it is moving through time — a literalization of Mickey and Mallory’s progression through pop culture.
This is just one scene among many that establishes the film’s setting in the “public screen,” the sea of multimedia imagery that simultaneously reflects and creates the cultural landscape.
While the film’s channel-surfing aesthetic is meant to induce sickness and mirror the public’s desensitized demeanor, it is a dazzling display, combining color, black and white, film, video, 35mm, Super 8, sitcom style, animation and newsreels — thus literalizing the notion of a media circus and providing a visual embodiment of sensationalism.
“Natural Born Killers” was certainly fitting for the Age of Court TV, in which the American public was bombarded with scandal after scandal, but it has even deeper shades of relevance now — an era of ever-flowing multimedia imagery as chaotic as the film itself, in which stories of violence spread like wildfire.
Like audiences in the time of the film’s release, the American public is attacked with multimedia from every which way. Surfing the Internet for a few minutes is now equivalent to sitting through a feature-length Oliver Stone barrage. Well, one from the ’90s, that is.
Stone’s recent films feel less hard-hitting and more open and ethereal. And that is reflected in his more reserved visual style — a straightforward purging rather than a reckless one. This could lead one to believe that all his demons were released with “Natural Born Killers” and that the film does not fully exist outside the mad cultural landscape of the ’90s. However, it remains influential to this day.
Relating the film even closer to today’s cinematic fantasies, one could argue that 2010’s “The Social Network” represents a visual embodiment of the emotionally detached society induced by the media that “Natural Born Killers” prophesied.
While “Killers” is a colorful burst of raw, violent emotions, “The Social Network” is essentially the aftermath of that purging, which is evident in its cold, sterile, slate grey sets. The Facebook headquarters in the film seems almost like the ruins of “Natural Born Killers’ ” setting.
This fact alone that “Killers” can still be compared to current cinema makes the film worthy of study. It also makes it a double threat — a fantasy that reflects reality and other fantasies. “Natural Born Killers” is ultimately a nightmare and the most powerful kind — a recurring one.