Natural Born Killers (1994)

I dislike Oliver Stone not so much for his extreme political views but first and foremost for his techniques as a filmmaker. In fact, Natural Born Killers is a film I wholeheartedly agree with. As the film explores issues of violence, media and audience it becomes a scathing critique of a culture obsessed with violence. But, in the process, Oliver Stone finds a way to undercut and ultimately usurp his message.

Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) Knox, loving husband and wife, are a modern era Bonnie and Clyde. As they ride throughout the godforsaken country, they commit mass murders of such horrific and mindless proportions that a media frenzy soon surrounds their exploits, making them much like the old heroes of old and among such fine contemporary killers as Michael Manson.

On this level, the film is about two ignorant hicks who go off on a killing spree. But why? That’s the question on the minds of the media. As the title suggests, it’s just in their blood. Throughout the film they are associated with images of predatory animals, specifically snakes. Their marriage rings are snakes and their acts of violence are often intercut with the image of a snake.

But beyond that, Oliver Stone wants to make sure that the audience knows the violence is evil. Every other violent act is intercut with demonic imagery. Sometimes, it’s a strange looking guy in a devil suit, another time, it’s Mallory hooting wildly as flames surround her. A life of violence that leads them on the road to damnation, quite fitting since the highway they travel down is Route 666.

While these associations are a good way to express ideology without having preachy characters, Oliver Stone is far too aggressive in conveying this information. The hyperkinetic MTV style makes it a jarring, heavy-handed assault upon the audience, the film itself a visceral attack on the eyes.  The aggressive visual style and rapid-fire cuts create a sledgehammer effect where the point quickly becomes clear and then is ponded even harder and deeper into the audience until it all falls apart.

Perhaps the crassest use of the device is the way the film uses the feel of a Leave it to Beaver style sitcom to create a slapstick feel to horrific violence. It ironically underlines the fact that the audience is just as entertained by the graphic violence as they are by the naive comedy. But it goes on for far too long, the effect overstaying its welcome to the point that it becomes not only uncomfortable but also just as obscene and indulgent as that which it criticizes.

And this is the core problem with Natural Born Killers. While it uses violence to criticize audience fascination of violence, by the end of the film it has become just as prolific and desensitizing to violence as the media it is criticizing. Within the first fifteen minutes, the graphic violence is already layered on so deep that any emotional impact later violence might have is rendered null and void. The rest is just as unnecessary and excessive as the action films and killer shows the film aims to drawn into question.

Oliver Stone is his own worst enemy. He’s given a story by Quentin Tarantino that had all the elements of a great critique of media and audience obsession with violence but rigorous rewrites and bombastic film techniques turned the movie into a failure. There are a lot of legitimate points being made in the film and when Stone can find a way to expressed those without being aggressive the film has some brilliant moments. But they aren’t enough to redeem this movie from the violent trash it is trying so hard to condemn.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing