Judge Gordon Sullivan wants shocking films to remain shocking.
The Media Made Them Superstars.
It seems to have abated somewhat now, but the mid-'90s saw a rise in cultural Chicken-Littlism: parents and pundits alike were convinced that violent media was going to curl their children's hair and turn them all into mentally unbalanced murders. Marilyn Manson was singing Satanic music, Doom was teaching kids how to kill, and the cinematic poster child for those concerned with media violence was none other than Natural Born Killers. Time has not been particularly kind to those on either side of the divide. Children coming of age in the mid-'90s grew up like most kids have grown up, while Doom, Marilyn Manson, and, to a large extent, Natural Born Killers have lost their relevance and power to shock. That does not mean, however, that we should consign them all to the dustbin of history. The film has lost its visceral edge in the last fifteen years, but it remains, especially in this director's cut, an interesting commentary on the relationship between media and criminality. This hi-def release is the perfect way to revisit this divisive film.
Facts of the Case
Mickey (Woody Harrelson, The Grand) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis, The Way of the Gun) Knox are a pair of outlaws from abusive families who decide to seal their love with a murder spree. Things seem to be going well until the media catches on and then it's a full-blown circus as the two are apprehended.
The liner notes included in this release are Oliver Stone's director's notes from Natural Born Killers' initial release. In them he asks "Didn't Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange offend the perceived borders of violence? Did not, years before, Buñuel and Dali, with an eyeball and a razor, shock and offend? Eisenstein with a baby carriage and shattered eyeglass." These are important questions, certainly placing Natural Born Killers into a history of cinema concerned with finding boundaries, with questioning typical modes of being. The problem, only revealed now, years later, is that Natural Born Killers does not really belong with those films because in the end it did not go far enough. A Clockwork Orange, Un Chien Andalou, and Battleship Potemkin have all maintained their ability to shock: I still can't watch Singin' in the Rain without thinking of Alex DeLarge or fail to turn away from the eye-cutting scene in Un Chien Andalou, but nothing about Natural Born Killers is shocking today.
The fault, however, lies not with Oliver Stone, but with the direction of our culture. The idea of two lovers going on a murdering spree was already old-hat by the time Stone directed the film, but the tragedies in the intervening years (Columbine, 9/11, etc.) have only softened the blows of Mickey's and Mallory's escapades. Then there's the film's critique of the media and its encouragement of violent crime through celebrity culture. That too has extended far beyond what Stone imagined in his film. With entire channels dedicated to crime and celebrity the idea of media's complicity in violence has long been explored and abandoned. Even Stone's most shocking element, the drastic formal characteristics of the film (the multitude of film stocks, the rapid editing, the rear projection) have been borrowed, assimilated, and cast aside in favor of newer, more shocking techniques.
All this leaves Natural Born Killers to survive as a curiosity, a cult favorite, and a warning to other filmmakers that if they wish to shock or satirize they must go above and beyond, or risk obsolescence.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With all the hoopla and shenanigans surrounding the film's violence, it's easy to overlook the fact that Stone has coaxed some career-best performances out of his cast. Woody Harrelson went from a goofy bartender to a dramatic leading man almost overnight, primarily on the strength of his performance here. He's charming like the best of the mass murderers, but also able to capture their hysteria. Juliette Lewis matches him note for note with her vulnerable but violent portrayal of Mallory. Rodney Dangerfield is one of the creepiest characters in film history as her father, and I'm still uncomfortable watching him. Tom Sizemore shows some early chops as Scagnetti, while Tommy Lee Jones steals the cop show as the warden of the jail. I don't know what drugs his character is supposed to be on, but I don't think I've ever seen him act more frenetic than he does here. Final consideration must go to Robert Downey Jr. as scumbag reporter Wayne Gale. He maintains a remarkably credible Australian accent while perfectly satirizing publicity hungry reporters.
As befits a film that's earned a large cult following, the director's cut of Natural Born Killers has been given an above-par hi-def presentation. Given the variety of film stocks, the intentional degradation of source materials, and the rapid editing, it's a bit hard to get a bead on the transfer here. Overall, I would say it's very strong, with an appropriately grainy feel for much of the film. Even at its best, though, the film is a bit soft, but it's hard to know if that's a flaw in the transfer or merely Stone's directorial decision. The audio, however, is pretty tremendous. The bottom end is solid, dialogue is easy to hear, and the film's musical cues come out loud and clear.
New to this edition is a featurette entitled "NBK Evolution: How Would It All Go Down Now?," along with the aforementioned liner notes that also include actor bios, some background on the film, and Stone's notes. Stone appears in an introduction and commentary, both of which are interesting because of his perspective on the film. Stone returns for an interview with veteran Charlie Rose that provides a nice snapshot of the cultural moment surrounding the film. we also get a featurette on the making of the film, and some deleted scenes that primarily feature characters who didn't make it into the film, including performances by Ashley Judd and Denis Leary.
Natural Born Killers has lost some of its bite in the last fifteen years, but it's an enduring testament to Oliver Stone's directorial talent, as well as the acting chops of the cast and crew. Because of the new booklet, featurette, and improved transfer this disc is almost certainly worth an upgrade for fans of the film. Those who have yet to experience Stone's brand of media crucifixion should probably start here.
Mickey and Mallory are guilty as sin, but Natural Born Killers is free to go.
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