Natural Born Killers

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Natural Born Killers

COMEDY/THRILLER:

United States, 1994

U.S. Release Date:

1994-08-26

Running Length:

1:59

MPAA Classification:

R (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

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

Director:

Oliver Stone

Screenplay:

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

Cinematography:

Robert Richardson

Music:

Trent Reznor

U.S. Distributor:

Warner Brothers

Subtitles:

none


Despite his reputation as one of America's foremost "serious" filmmakers, Oliver Stone's name under the "director" caption does not guarantee a good movie. I learned that lesson while enduring the seemingly-endless tedium of The Doors, and was reminded of it during some of the long, drawn-out portions of JFK. However, nothing that Stone has directed - or misdirected -- prepared me for the grotesque mess that is Natural Born Killers.

Reportedly, Quentin Tarantino (who is credited with the story) was upset by the treatment accorded his idea. His reaction is understandable. While it's impossible to tell what kind of movie this would have been served up "straight," it's a safe bet that it couldn't have been worse. In its current form, Natural Born Killers is treading uncomfortably close to Even Cowgirls Get the Blues territory, and that's not a good place for a movie to be.

As a satire on the media's infatuation with violence and murderers, Natural Born Killers hits the bullseye. The problem is, this is a one-note movie. It repeatedly hammers home the same point until the audience is bludgeoned into senselessness. Man Bites Dog attacked the subject with more finesse and wit.

Then there are the visuals - a virtual cornucopia of photographic tricks. Stone frequently switches not only from color to black-and-white, but from one film stock to another. He uses a variety of angles and filters. Animation, slow motion, fast motion, rear screen projection - he doesn't miss a gimmick. At times it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to focus on the story with all that's going on.

Used sparingly, these sorts of devices can be very effective (see Zentropa for an example). Stone, however, doesn't know the meaning of moderation or subtlety, and opts instead for something that is excessive and self-indulgent. It's as if he wants to shout out the statement: "Look at what I can do! I'm an artist!"

Ultimately, the story doesn't carry much importance. Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) are serial killers whose wake is littered with fifty-two bodies. They slaughter just about anyone they meet, although at each massacre they leave behind a single survivor. The Law, in the person of Jack Scagnetti (a character mentioned in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and played here by Tom Sizemore), is after the pair, but with no more fervor than the media. Spearheaded by Wayne Gayle (Robert Downey Jr.), American Maniacs (a TV program profiling serial killers) is hot on Mickey and Mallory's trail, with ratings as the prize.

The actors aren't much more crucial than the plot, dwarfed as they are by the camerawork. Everyone is over-the-top, especially Tommy Lee Jones (as a sadistic warden) and Robert Downey Jr. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis are adequate as Mickey and Mallory, although neither is required to do anything more imposing than act out a comic-book like character.

There are some clever bits here and there. The I Love Mallory sitcom parody (featuring Rodney Dangerfield and Edie McClurg) is amusing -- and a little sinister, especially considering how the laugh track is manipulated. The use of clips from old shows like Leave it to Beaver works, as do some of the animated inserts. The soundtrack's blend of more than seventy musical cues provides a balanced counterpoint to the visual blitz.

However, the good parts of this film, meager as they are, can't do much to help. Message or not, Natural Born Killers is an example of narcissistic film making. Next time, Oliver, try to restrain yourself -- at least a little.





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