He is Hollywood’s self-appointed medicine man. Director Oliver Stone has spent much of his career exorcising the demons of Sixties America. With his Vietnam trilogy—Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven and Earth (1993), Stone tried to purge a legacy of fear, guilt and rage. In JFK (1991), he portrayed the Kennedy assassination as the work of a conspiratorial cabal. The same year, in The Doors, he canonized rock star Jim Morrison as a martyr to Dionysian excess. Now, Stone drags his full bestiary of demons kicking and screaming into the present: with Natural Born Killers, he has made the most adventurous, outlandish and incendiary film of his career.
Natural Born Killers is a hallucinatory satire of the media-fuelled infatuation with violence that has come to define American culture. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis star as Mickey and Mallory Knox, two mass murderers in love with each other and no one else, savage punks who become cult heroes as they conduct a killing spree through the desert towns of the American Southwest. Although they murder 52 people in three weeks, they are the most sympathetic characters in the movie, which is not saying much. The others include a TV reporter (Robert Downey Jr., with a wild Australian accent) who uses the killers to pump up ratings for his tabloid crime show, American Maniacs', a homicide detective (Tom Sizemore) who is as sleazy as the killers he stalks; and a prison warden (Tommy-Lee Jones) who can barely contain himself, never mind his inmates, as a live jailhouse interview with Mickey sparks a prison riot Natural Born Killers is a nihilistic Bonnie and Clyde for the ’90s. But unlike Arthur Penn’s 1967 outlaw road movie, it plays as farce, not tragedy, and its anti-heroes escape retribution. As a milestone in shock cinema, Stone’s film leaves one scrambling to find precedents. The amoral violence of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) comes to mind, but, after the kick-ass carnage of Natural Born Killers, even it seems tame.
Stone is no stranger to overkill. As a director, he has often been criticized for excess, for bludgeoning the viewer with the obvious—assaulting the senses while leaving the mind unscratched. But in light of his new movie, perhaps the problem with his previous work is that he has not been excessive enough. Straitjacketed within naturalistic drama, Stone’s hyperbolic expressionism seems heavy-handed—everything it touches turns to melodrama. But in the absurdly height-
ened reality of Natural Born Killers, Stone finally seems to be in his element—flaunting society’s values and Hollywood’s cinematic conventions with the same gonzo spirit.
Stone enacts Mickey and Mallory’s rampage as a surreal odyssey. He draws on a dizzying arsenal of film stocks and techniques: from 35 mm to super-8, color and black-and-white, hand-held video, rear pro-
jection and cartoon animation. The movie unfolds with the jarring rhythm of a featurelength rock video, with images of old movies—including Stone’s own—tossed into the mix for good measure. In a typical scene, while Mickey and Mallory make out on a motel-room bed, a rapid-fire montage of images—war, wildlife, conflagration, cowboys and Indians—is projected onto the window beside them.
Despite its barrage of imagery, however, the movie is neither as numbing nor as manipulative as Stone’s more earnest dramas. And the violence is relentless, but not stomach-churning. Stone, meanwhile, shows an exuberant flair for satire. His flashbacks to Mallory’s abused childhood are presented as an R-rated sitcom, I Love Mallory. To a rollicking laugh track, her father (Rodney Dangerfield) cracks crude jokfes about having sex with his daughter. Coming to her rescue, Mickey slaughters dad with a crowbar and sets her mother on fire.
As the movie jives between visceral drama and giddy farce, Harrelson remains chillingly credible. The former Cheers goofball—whose own father is serving a life sentence for murder—seems eerily well cast as a psychopathic killer. And as his snarling, oversexed accomplice, Lewis finally gets to unleash a raging malevolence that simmered just beneath the surface in previous roles.
As for Stone, in mass murder he has finally found a suitable outlet for his pugnacious directing style. He shoots everything in sight, from every angle, blasting and cutting his way through the horrors of American culture. At one point, a television flicks through images of the Menendez brothers, Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbitt, the Waco massacre and O. J. Simpson. Like the tabloid media he mocks, Stone exploits bloodshed in his own way. But the film portrays violence as a natural, primordial instinct. The narrative is riddled with images of rattlesnakes in the desert— a mystical motif that first surfaced, awkwardly, in The Doors, and now seems to be right at home. Meanwhile, a haunting sound track makes spiritual sense out of the film’s visual anarchy. Three songs by Leonard Cohen (Stone’s California buddy in Buddhism) serve as mantras for the story, including The Future, which concludes the movie with the prophetic resonance—“I’ve seen the future, brother: it is murder.”
The moral value of Stone’s movie is as open-ended as the future it envisions. But that is exactly why it works. Natural Born Killers offers an extraordinary thrill—the sensation, on leaving the theatre, of having witnessed something revolutionary.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.