Review: Natural Born Killers (1994)

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With The Hateful Eight in theatres recently, seems like all of us film nerds are talking about Quentin Tarantino. And like no other film maker these days, people like to look at his body of work and reflect on their favourites. Now, I don’t mind Mr. Tarantino, but I’m not the biggest fan. I’ve seen the majority of his work and I can give credit where credit is due. But more recently I took some interest in the films that he wrote back in the 90’s that he wound up selling and having them shot by some other directors. The last one I wound up checking out was Natural Born Killers, which was directed by legendary director Oliver Stone. Though, apparently the rewrites of this film were to the point where Tarantino could no longer even get screenplay credit; his name is only under ‘story.’ This is not what he had envisioned for this movie. This is an Oliver Stone film. That’s how it is with writers though, some scripts you just have to let go.

Truthfully, I haven’t seen the bulk of Stone’s work. Off the top of my head, I’ve seen JFK and World Trade Center, which were very different. I really need to see Platoon I’m told. But this time I went with Natural Born Killers so shame on me.

It follows Mickey and Mallory Knox, a young married couple who are unusual in the sense that they are mass murderers. They travel around the country killing people whenever they see fit. They’ve garnered themselves a reputation and are celebrated, generally, by the public for being really cool mass murderers. It follows their getting together through their incarceration through their eventual escape.

As if through different lenses of media, the film switches film stock, cameras, colours, framing, etc. all throughout. This is one of the fatal flaws of Natural Born Killers. What Oliver Stone passes as an artistic choice, winds up making the film incredibly unpleasant to watch on even a visual level. We are unable to settle and even take the story in. Every time the camera zooms in awkwardly, or tilts unexpectedly, or turns black and white and grainy, I was removed from the movie. I could not just sit and watch it as my head was screaming “Stawp!” every 15 seconds. It literally makes the film unwatchable. It may be the ugliest film ever put into theatres, but don’t worry, it’s all in the name of pretentiousness.

The positive reviews I read about this film essentially praise it for its critique of media and the glorification of violence. I’m no fool; I understand what the movie is trying to do. I’ve been hit in the head with more subtle frying pans (true story) than this movie and its ‘message.’ But if you really look at this movie, it really doesn’t have as much beyond its surface as you might hope. The very violence that this films claims to criticize, it simply indulges in. It tries to hide its shallowness by winking to the camera, but it offers nothing more than a wink. Anything it has to say about media’s glorification of mass murderers is so over the top that it bears no more resemblance to real life. For an experienced director, Stone seems to show a strange lack of understanding about the world of media.

There is a disconnect between what’s actually going on on screen and what is being implied. People are acting like Mickey and Mallory are super stars, but there is no line between point A and point B. Why are Mickey and Mallory so cool despite being mass murders? We see some of their murderous rampages and that they always leave someone alive, but I saw nothing on screen that would make me want to be them. Harrelson plays Mickey manic and cold while Juliette Lewis plays Mallory like she’s barking mad. They weren’t particularly charismatic or even all that exciting. If you want me to believe that sheep would follow these two, you have to give the viewer something worth following too. Yeah, they’re a crazy psycho couple, but make a case for them. Maybe Stone wrote their likeability out in one of his many rewrites of the script.

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Part of me says that I should take it easier on Mr. Stone, after all, I was very young when this film came out and wasn’t as aware of the media climate at the time. Perhaps this film was extremely topical and addressed issues that needed addressing. But… no. All I need to do is remember what I went through while watching this film and all mercy I have goes right down the drain. Natural Born Killers is over-violent, self-indulgent trash and there is no excusing it.

And look, I understand that I rented a movie called Natural Born Killers and so I should expect some violence. I don’t have an issue with violence in and of itself, but there is a gross mean spiritedness about this movie that is unforgivable. The violence overtakes the film to the point where there is barely a story any more. The body count climbs so high that it becomes parody. It’s more like Hot Shots: Part Deux than Pulp Fiction.

I struggle to think of even a hand full of equally unpleasant movie experiences I’ve had in the last few years. One can argue the angle that it’s a black comedy, but ultimately that doesn’t justify how agonizing it is to watch. And I usually like dark comedies because I have a grim sense of humour and stuff like that makes me laugh. Nothing about it makes me laugh on an intentional or ironic level. It is insulting, distasteful, and disgraceful.

A friend of mine made mention that at the very least this movie helped remove Woody Harrelson out of the public consciousness as a “funny actor” because of his role in Cheers. After this film and a few others, it was very clear that he was very versatile and could do anything. And I like Woody Harrelson and am glad that he’s the actor he is today. So maybe I can at least take solace in the fact that this film played that part in cinema history. BUT, I also believe that Harrelson is a talented enough guy that he could get to where he is now even without this film. I could only speculate really. Second guessing history is as futile an exercise as trying to squeeze enjoyment out of Natural Born Killers.

0.5 Stars

-DF