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Natural Born Killers almost loses its message


Directed by Oliver Stone.

Written by David Veloz, Richard Rutowski, and Oliver Stone; based on a story by Quentin Tarantino.

Starring Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, and Tom Sizemore.

Loews Cheri.

By Scott Deskin
Associate Arts Editor

Make no mistake: Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers is one of the most violent films to grace the big screen in the last decade, and it stands as a cinematic testament next to such pioneers as Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) and Brian DePalma's decadent Scarface (1983). However, where those earlier films sought to cast a serious pall of doom over the story, the new film revels in its hallucinogenic imagery and blood-spattered windshields. This is basically Stone's attempt at a broad satire of modern society and the media, seen through the eyes of the marauding title characters, Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis). Unlike True Romance, the last script based on a story by film auteur Quentin Tarantino, Natural Born Killers really does feel like "a Bonnie and Clyde for the 90s."

From the film's opening scene, in which the couple massacres everyone at a roadstop diner (except for one obligatory witness), the stage is set for a deluge of disorienting images and an incongruous soundtrack. Stone changes film stock several times during the opening murder scene and employs visual tricks - in which a bullet whirls in slow motion and then pauses while a victim contemplates her fate - while the music shifts from a slow balladeer's lament to hard rock from a jukebox to an excerpt from Madame Butterfly. It is disorienting, exhilarating, and comic at the same time. This is Oliver Stone at his most wild and uninhibited, free to shock his audience with an array of images just short of inducing a headache and entertaining enough for him to escape his inevitable role as cultural propagandist.

The joyride continues with a flashback from Mallory's past, presented as a demented sitcom (complete with laugh track) entitled "I Love Mallory." Strange and visually crass as it is, we can see Mallory's pain as a child of a family of dysfunction and sexual abuse. The casting of Rodney Dangerfield as Mallory's father adds an extra bit of a laugh-shock, compounded when his character spouts the witticism "stupid bitch" to his daughter, much to the delight of the mock studio audience. Her deliverance is achieved in the form of Mickey, a meat delivery boy who rescues her from home-sweet-hell by bludgeoning and drowning her dad to death and setting her mom on fire. After that, both lovers run wild in their newfound freedom, killing and pillaging wherever they want. Once victims of the all-encompassing social order, they have temporarily taken a giant leap to the top of it.

By this time, Mickey and Mallory have become media darlings, simultaneously crucified for their actions and worshipped for their individualism. A youth interviewed on the street claims to value human life, but he ardently states with his slacker friends, "if I were a serial killer, I would be Mickey and Mallory." But we never really get to know what most of America thinks: The medium and the message is represented by slimy reporters like Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), host of a tabloid TV-show called American Maniacs. He controls the sound bites, and he churns out the junk-food images upon which millions of Americans feed every day. Yet, for all his on-target criticism of the media machine, Stone fails to recognize that he is part of that same machine, producing and consuming the same tabloid trash that we all do, and when he adopts such a sanctimonious tone, it undercuts his message.

Even more outrageous are the caricatures of law and order. The detective who tracks down Mickey and Mallory, Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), is a sadistic cop who becomes a best-selling novelist, detailing his life in crime. Warden McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) is a ridiculously-drawn, fast-talking figure of authority, kind of an evil relative of the Kramer character on TV's Seinfeld. Both actors play their roles with cartoonish, over-the-top flamboyance, although the film doesn't really allow much room for heartfelt, subdued performances. In fact, the killers themselves may be the most realistically drawn characters in the whole film: At the end, they find that their love can transcend their petty mortal limitations or, as Mickey puts it, "Love beats the demon."

Given what was required of them, all the actors - especially Harrelson and Lewis - gave remarkably outrageous performances. I think the trick that Stone was aiming to pull off in this film, a satire on violence and the exploitation of the American media, was narrowly achieved in this movie. However, Stone's ego and general tendency toward cinematic spectacle deaden the impact of the film's message. The audacious camera style and clever editing may thrill the audience for awhile; but, by the film's end things have become so out-of-control that the audience can't be sure who was the target of Stone's argument in the first place. It may secure a spot next to films like Bonnie and Clyde, but its general freneticism and lack of focus automatically demotes it to a more visceral and less cerebral league, making it a logical touchstone for the MTV generation.