Trimark // 1994 // 120 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // February 5th, 2001
In the media circus of life, they were the main attraction.
Natural Born Killers is a tour-de-force; a provocative indictment against the media and our desensitized-to-violence culture. One of cinema's most controversial films, feelings run strongly both for and against it, an indication that the film met it's goal; which is to hold a mirror up to our society and see if we can bear to look at it. It's not for the faint of heart or those unwilling to engage their neurons, but if you're willing to really try to see what the film is saying you may well agree with me that this is one of the most important films of the 1990s. Now Trimark brings us the director's cut of the film, which makes the transition to DVD from the laserdisc boxed set.
This has turned out to be one of the most difficult reviews I've written to date. Natural Born Killers is not an easy film to talk about. On the surface it is merely a tale about two mass-murdering lovers named Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Wag the Dog, The Thin Red Line; Juliette Lewis, Strange Days, From Dusk til Dawn, Men), and about the celebrity they enjoyed. To the casual viewer the film seems frenetic, surreal, and something more at home in a bad acid trip. The constantly shifting and changing film stocks, from clear 35mm to grainy black and white 8mm and video, along with a highly variable lighting and color scheme keeps the viewer uncomfortable and ill at ease. The imagery is often symbolic and frightening, and you see what is apparently in the minds of the killers projected onto walls, windows, and racing alongside their car. But there is far more to this film than some surreal psychedelic gore-fest. The violence is overly graphic, yet unrealistic much of the time; and it's intent is to exaggerate the violence we see every day.
Oliver Stone (Platoon, JFK, Wall Street) uses several techniques to shine a light on television and our obsession with tragedy, crime and violence as a culture. Least subtle of these would be his use of a stereotypical sitcom format to describe Mallory's abusive past. Suddenly we are taken to the set of "I Love Mallory" with the typical sitcom theme music and laugh track, yet the dialogue is simply horrid. Rodney Dangerfield puts in his darkest performance as the incestuous and abusive father, and Edie McClurg, well known for television comedy roles, plays the wife who allows it all to happen. We see the true Mickey and Mallory story, the abuse that ends in their first murders, all set to a laugh track for dialogue that is grossly inappropriate.
Stone also relies on our shared cultural knowledge. Near the end of Natural Born Killers, he cuts to a montage of real footage of well-known news events. These scenes include the Menendez brothers, Tonya Harding, Rodney King, the Branch Davidians, and last but not least O.J. Simpson. Stone is not trying to be subtle; unequivocally he is telling his audience, shouting even, that the coverage of Mickey and Mallory is not a wild exaggeration. He brings the exaggeration of the violence in the film into our living rooms as just another in a long series of senseless carnage that continues to this day with the Columbine school killings.
Stone condemns the recklessness of media in glorifying violence, not reporting it. When violence is a breaking story, it is the obligation of the media to report it. What he condemns is the processing and manufacturing of news as a means of entertainment. When violent acts are sensationalized and packaged for sale, we find our appetite for the harsh truth falsely stimulated, resulting in desensitization. After watching this film I've become ever more angered at our mainstream media who not only report a story, but go on and on far past the point of providing information. The three solid days of Columbine on the air typifies the lie that there is much of a difference between tabloid television and our respected newsgatherers. Just this morning network television interviewed grief-stricken people whose family members perished in a recent plane crash. This coverage included some past interviews of the victims. This wanton reveling in tragedy ranks right up with the way the media treats Mickey and Mallory, who have become celebrities on magazine covers and have throngs of groupies. In this regard the film remains an insightful look at our media coverage.
Yet another technique used in the film is that of constructed reality. The media reports on what happens, and somehow the inferences they make are considered truth. In Natural Born Killers, Stone subtly demonstrated how constructed reality becomes possible when television reports sensationally on real world events. Normally used to build up our suspension of disbelief in fiction, this construction becomes a dangerous force in our interpretation of real events. As Mickey and Mallory continue down Route 666 on their extended killing spree, media reports spread the word that Mickey and Mallory always leave one person behind to tell the story. Wayne Gale, the tabloid television anchor with a distinctly Robin Leach accent, played to the extreme by Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin, US Marshals, Bowfinger), uses this piece of detail to embellish and sensationalize the story of Mickey and Mallory to his viewers. In general they do leave one behind, and in a fascinating way revel in the media spotlight -- yet feel they have evolved past it into contempt. Sometimes, however, they don't leave someone alive, and more than one person in the film finds out to his dismay (to say the least) that just because the media said something was true does not make it so. The constructed reality of television is not true reality, something that many in our society have forgotten, and with it their ability for critical thought.
The film delves even deeper than "merely" being a spotlight on our culture and media's impact. Stone reaches to the depths of the human soul in attempting to speak about the nature of good and evil. The theme of a demon runs throughout the film, and the point is made that the demon is in Mickey, but that love can beat the demon. Love may be able to triumph, but not while Mickey has moved past human norms and morals in his evolution. In true adherence to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Mickey and to a lesser extent Mallory have become the "overman" or man who has grown past conventional morals and chooses his own ethos. Let's not forget these same teachings were instrumental in the philosophies of Adolph Hitler too. Directly to your right there is a link to a wonderful article that goes far deeper into this aspect of the film than I can here.
If I haven't lost you already, let me talk about the disc. Natural Born Killers is presented with a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic transfer. It is probably fruitless to ask for anamorphic with this film, considering that so much of it is purposefully shot with sub-standard film formats for effect. Nevertheless, the picture is clear with well-saturated colors and blacks at some times, and grainy and black and white at others. All said, the transfer does justice to the film; and I believe it is the same transfer from the laserdisc boxed set. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack aggressively comes from all directions, with frequent use of the split surrounds and subwoofer. The musical score, encompassing over 100 pieces of music, is artfully done and adds to the story as a whole rather than being mere emotional background. The soundstage is wide but a bit forward. I give it high marks.
Also from the laserdisc boxed set isvorites are the six deleted scenes and the alternate ending for the film, which would have given a much different impact as the viewer finished the film. One of the scenes had Denis Leary in one of his trademark rants on society, which would have been a bit of comedic relief. A trailer for the DVD, rather than the movie, itself is included, which is definitely not for general audiences in the theater, along with trailers for Another Day in Paradise, Storm of the Century, and Cube. Of course another "extra" is that this is the director's cut, the film that Stone first made before the MPAA demanded 150 cuts, though only about three minutes of actual footage. I think it was a futile effort for the ratings board to even attempt to cut this film into something they could feel comfortable with; in fact the missing footage isn't even that gory compared to what you see in many horror films. However, I'm always in favor of a film being returned to the integrity of its maker.
I can't finish talking about the film without mentioning two other players in the film and talking about one more aspect. In this film there are no truly redeeming people. The animal nature of man is being highlighted, and oftentimes the killers themselves are shown to be as human as the people they kill. Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan, Enemy of the State, Any Given Sunday) plays the grandstanding Detective Scagnetti, who ultimately apprehends the pair at the end of the first act, but not before he kills a prostitute with his bare hands. His fellow cops give a good imitation of the Rodney King beating as well. Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive, Double Jeopardy, Batman Forever) plays the prison warden who conspires with Scagnetti to transfer Mickey and Mallory so that they can be "shot while escaping" on the way. Rarely do we see anyone in this film you feel sorry about getting killed. I also forgot to mention that Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, From Dusk til Dawn) is the uncredited writer of the first draft of the screenplay, which may make this film make a bit more sense to some of you who follow his work.
Probably the most important thing to say is this film isn't for everybody. Most people will either like it or hate it. I do ask that you give it an open mind, and not hate it without having seen it. It may well take more than one viewing to truly understand the picture; I know it did for me.
Some scenes weren't as well done as others; the prison scenes, including Tommy Lee Jones' performance, did not work for me as well. They could have been done more believably.
There isn't anything truly new here for the DVD; it is basically a rehash of the laserdisc set. Only the trailer was added, and the Nine Inch Nails music video removed. Since I don't own the laserdisc set I'm happy it's on DVD, and without the disc changing involved.
Natural Born Killers is, above all else, a commentary on how, as a society we condemn violence, while hypocritically glorifying it in the media. It delves deeply into the human psyche, and that is not always a comfortable experience. I think it's well worth the effort in the end, and adults should see it at least once.
Oliver Stone remains one of the great directors of our time, and is acquitted without prejudice. Trimark is given a wave out of the courtroom for providing this on DVD, even though it did not take a ton of effort to rehash the laserdiscs. The actors are all given my commendation, with the exception of Tommy Lee Jones, who is being released without charges.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Deleted Scenes
* Alternate Ending
* Oliver Stone Tribute Site