Monday, September 5, 1994

Natural Born Killers

OK, just caught a screening of Oliver Stone's heartwarming flick, Natural Born Killers. The song is over, but the music still plays in my mind ...

Happiness is a warm gun. Bang, bang, shoot, shoot. Everybody must get Oliver Stoned.

OK, OK, enough comedy. You want a review, right? Fine. Let's start with the plot ...

Basically, Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) go on a killing spree. Ah, those crazy mixed-up kids ... The template is obviously Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands. The law cuts their spree short; Mickey and Mallory wind up in prison where they belong. But the Geraldo-esque sleazebag host of a "true crime" TV show (Robert Downey Jr.) screws things up in his zeal to boost his ratings. An orgy of violence ensues. Mickey and Mallory escape and ... that's it.

My reaction?

This is obviously Stone's violent anti-violence satire. (Or the satire of screenwriter Quentin Tarantino of Pulp Fiction fame. For purposes of clarity, I'll pretend Stone is the sole "auteur.") Too much violence on TV. It's a terrible thing, sez Ollie. But he films the ultraviolence like it's a beautiful thing.

You never see any little kids getting killed, rarely see any gore. It's all very stylized and moves very fast in a blender of film stocks and editing styles. Stone's trying to recreate what's going on inside the minds of the two psycho killers. This is how they see the world; this is what their killing sprees feel like to them. They don't see it as a horror. They're having the most fun they've ever had in their lives in a blood-splattered, realworld roadrunner cartoon.

That's murder? No ...

That's entertainment!

Stone's main target is the media. The two best gags in the flick: his satire of true-crime TV shows (American Psychos) and his rendition of a horrible, abusive family in the form of a situation comedy, complete with laugh track -- and Rodney Dangerfield as the degenerate dad.

He's making the point (behind a lot of boomer humor) that everything has become entertainment.

There's one scene where a mystical Native American takes the two killers into his home. (Perhaps this is the Indian who later becomes Jim Morrison's guide in the spirit world.) He sees the words "DEMON" and "TOO MUCH TV" flash over Mickey's chest, then gets killed.

Except for the Injun (nonwhite=good) all the other victims are obnoxious or distant to us. Stone does what Kubrick did in A Clockwork Orange: he stylizes the violence, and makes the victims so cartoon-like and unsympathetic that you don't feel too sorry for them. But this is way beyond A Clockwork Orange, O my brothers.

Stone is also doing what Chayefsky and Lumet did in Network. He shows how the media have turned all and everything into entertainment. Same point, taken to a psychotic degree.

Stone's satire is blunt-edged and over-the-top: a jump into bad-taste hyperspace. Nothing exceeds like excess, eh?

The film's almost impossible to analyze when you're seeing it, because Stone is very cleverly pushing all our buttons. OK, it's a satire--but a satire of what? What is he trying to say here anyway? Swift's Modest Proposal sez the English treat the Irish like animals. Stone's Natural Born Killers sez...


I'm not exactly sure what it's saying. Stone's film seems to be saying several contradictory things at once. Why do these "Natural Born Killers" kill? The movie gives us a multiple choice answer --

There's a psychologist who says, "Mickey and Mallory know the difference between right and wrong. They just don't care," which gives us the freewill and personal responsibility angle (echoing A Clockwork Orange).

The sacred Indian sees the words TOO MUCH TV flash across Mickey's chest, so presumably the media/message is that violence is a boob-tube-induced, cultural sickness...and pretty much a sickness of late 20th century crazy American whitepeople. I.e: We would all be beautiful, noble savages like that Indian, but for our media-forged manacles.

Stone hits us with trials-of-life killer animal imagery, which seems to say killing is hard-wired into the old genetic code: we're all natural born killers.

We see scenes of childhood incest and traumatic experiences, which gives us the Geraldo/Oprah bad-environment explanation.

Oh yeah. Forgot to mention all those snakes, devils and Book of Revelation references. Stone managed to get that old time religion in there too.

Which gives us (to recap) free will, too much TV, bad genes, bad environment, and original sin, as explanations for Mickey and Mallory's killing spree. A multiple choice answer. Which is the same as no answer at all.

I got Swift's point. I don't get Stone's point. It doesn't add up, but it all winds up on television.
TV is the root of all evil.

That seems to be the only point.

Whatever he is or isn't saying -- like I said, Stone's big satiric target is the tube -- and the violence that festers inside. Hmmmm....

Seems a little hypocritical to bash the media for exploiting violence when that's what Stone is doing with this movie. Funny as this may sound, I found myself wondering what someone might think about this who had had a friend or relative killed by some kook. The movie (arguably from a psycho's point of view) is saying that killing is the best high there is. It's also saying (again, arguably from a nut's viewpoint) that the victims deserve to be killed. The media people are scum. Police and prison guards are scum. Everyday people are scum. These victims all deserve the death sentences Mickey and Mallory hand out to them. As Mickey points out ...

"Nobody's innocent."

OK. Which is probably a fair statement of what's going on in Mickey and Mallory's scrambled heads -- the truth of their experience. But it's also true that violence in real life isn't choreographed or symbolic -- at least to those on the receiving end. Violence is ugly and it hurts. Krazed killers may be blowing away symbols (gooks, pigs, male scum, etc.) but it's real individuals who die.

Stone may argue he's no more advocating mass murder than Swift was arguing in favor of baby-eating. A fair point -- but Swift takes his satire so far, there's no way to ignore his point. Which leads, horribly enough, to the failure of this movie ...

It didn't go far enough.

The sick, murderer-loving nation should have embraced the killer couple after their escape. Mickey should have run for President.

And won.