John Lennon called, he wants his glasses ba
This week I’m introducing a new segment called Ghosts of Movies Past, in which I will review a past film from a director or actor featured in a newly released film. On the heels of the release of Savages, this week I’ll be taking a look back at Oliver Stone’s career with a review of one of his earliest and most controversial films: Natural Born Killers.
I’ve always been a big proponent of directors taking risks in their work, deviating from the traditional Hollywood formulas to leave an impact on audiences with something truly bold and unique. Every now and then, though, there comes a movie which makes me feel like a complete hypocrite in that sense, and as I watched Natural Born Killers it became clearer and clearer that I had found a new addition to that list. I like to think of myself as being fairly cinema-savvy and able to appreciate a variety of different styles and artistic visions, but the entire concept of art is that it will solicit vastly different reactions from each person who experiences it. As a result, there are a great deal of films which have won critical acclaim that I nevertheless did not enjoy in the slightest. However, even when I watched those movies (Requiem for a Dream, The Squid and the Whale, and the original Dawn of the Dead to name a few) I at least respected them for their artistic value, and I felt no such respect for this movie. Natural Born Killers is a feature length acid trip of a film dominated by a fevered fascination with the nature of senseless violence, yet rather than taking an analytic approach to the subject it celebrates it.
If you’ve never heard of the movie, the plot is fairly irrelevant as it proceeds much as you would expect a hyper-violent Bonnie and Clyde crime biopic to. The beginning of the film follows the murderous meanderings of Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) as they roam the American southwest on their infamous three week long killing spree. Peppered in between the murders we are shown highly stylized flashbacks to the couple’s earlier lives, featuring the parental abuse which presumably drove each of them their current state of perpetual psychosis. These flashbacks recur frequently throughout movie’s scenes of violence, and they at least provide some explanation of how the couple became so, for lack of a better word, fucked-up. Eventually though their spree comes to an end and they are incarcerated separately in a maximum security prison. However, as Mickey tells his supporters before being sent to prison, “you ain’t seen nothing yet” and the last thirty minutes of the film more than live up to that proclamation.
Still a better love story than Twilight
Now on to why I detested this movie. First of all, there is not a single likable character in sight for about 99% of the film. Every character is corrupt or evil in their own way, and while the two mass murderers are clearly subject to this condition, Stone incomprehensibly seems to almost take Mickey’s side in his assertion that the more socially accepted evils of commercialism are equally deplorable as his acts. I understand the idea that society seems to pick and choose what sorts of morality to follow based on what is convenient to us, but the suggestion that such a thing validates the sort of violence featured here is beyond the scope of reason. I admit that I did find myself intrigued by the relationship between crime reporter Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.) and Mickey, and the interaction between the two came closer to valid social commentary than any other aspect of the film for me. Both characters display similar disregard for morality, yet they do so in ways that we as a society perceive as very different. While Mickey kills people, Wayne takes the actions of psychopaths like Mickey and uses them to draw on our society’s fascination with violent criminals and increase his program’s ratings. In fact, it could be argued that people like Wayne who romanticize violent criminals offer the incentive of fame to prospective killers and therefore contribute to even more deaths than any of the individuals they shine a spotlight on. The ironic thing about this criticism of our culture’s obsession with violence is that many have blamed Natural Born Killers for inspiring some of the more heinous acts of violence which occured around the time of its release (The Columbine Shooters actually referenced NBK several times in their preceding discussions of the massacre)
The Verdict: 4/10 Not My Cup of Tea
Like a proverbial train wreck, NBK is hard to watch but even harder to look away from. However, where most truly effective movies hold their audiences captive through compelling characters, compelling stories and complex moral issues, Natural Born Killers mostly achieves this effect through shock value rather substance. Stone simultaneously criticizes and celebrates the media’s obsession with violence, and in doing so he creates a very confusing tone for the film as a whole. There are a great deal of artistic touches, and some of these add stylistic depth to the film while the vast majority seem excessive and random. To be completely honest, I hated this movie. On the other hand, I’d take a hundred Natural Born Killers over half an hour of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen any day of the week. I may have been disgusted for about 90% of the film’s run time, but I at least acknowledge that it forced me to think about its subjects in a way that no Michael Bay film ever will. I cannot in good faith recommend this movie to anyone with the assertion that they will like it, but I will at least say that if you are in the mood for depraved violence and freakishly subliminal cinematography a la Requiem for a Dream, you may want to give this one a viewing to form your own opinion.