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Natural Born Killers
Overall Rating
4.4Overall Score

Natural born killers reviewUnited States, 1994
Directed By: Oliver Stone
Written By: Oliver Stone, Richard Rutowski and David Veloz, from a story by Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey, Jr., Tommy Lee Jones
Running Time: 119 minutes
Rated R for extreme violence and graphic carnage, for shocking images, and for strong language and sexuality



Movie Review

The trouble with irony is that it’s never really possible to know who’s kidding whom. This is true in the world of the fine arts—Andy Warhol, anyone?—but can be even more frustrating in the mass media, especially media that tends to glorify its villains and undeniably has an active role in shaping the surrounding culture. Take, for example, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers—a film that was obviously intended as a parody of American culture’s obsession with violence, but has had no noticeable effect on said culture other than to desensitize it further, and encourage the very violence it satirizes. Of course, there are two possible ways to react to that: I could call the film a failure, or I could rave that it’s Now More Important Than Ever!

I’m inclined to do the former, but even if the film failed in a practical sense, it’s still something of a well-made piece of cinema. And while it does in many ways miss its own point, it sort of makes it, in a roundabout kind of way (not that it’s hard to make the point that America is obsessed with violence—but still). That just leaves me with the problem of whom to recommend the film to. Those that would enjoy it—sick people obsessed with violence—are almost certainly the ones that shouldn’t see it. And if you’re not a sick person obsessed with violence, you don’t need to hear this film’s message anyway. So I’m stuck with a good film that I don’t recommend.

The film follows Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, respectively), a romantic couple who come from tortured pasts and decide it would be fun to go on a killing spree. Along the way, their exploits are popularized by Wayne Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.), a television personality who hosts a show called American Maniacs. Because of their media exposure, they become national heroes and have legions of adoring fans that follow them everywhere.

At one point, a fan gushes, “Don’t get me wrong, I respect human life and stuff. But if I was serial killer, I would definitely be Mickey and Mallory.” This is about halfway through the film—and the funny thing is, if Stone had stopped there, he would have made his point perfectly (how many people do you know that claim to love humanity, but still lined up to see Saw II on opening night?). But he doesn’t—and while we as the audience are saying, “We get it, already,” Stone continues to fill the screen with carnage, up to and including (in the—wait for it—Unrated Extended Cut) a hostage rape and a prison riot with the warden’s head on a pike.

The carnage is also (depending on your tastes, of course) of the particularly obnoxious variety. Stone employs a particularly heavy-handed MTV-inspired style of editing here, where color and black and white are edited together at breakneck pace, together with (admittedly cool) animation, and possibly every other filmic style ever conceived (including a sitcom featuring Rodney Dangerfield as a sexually abusive father). I once heard someone refer to this as the “Look Mom, I’m Directing” school of filmmaking, and that’s really not a bad description. It’s arguably appropriate for a film satirizing a media-drenched culture, but again, it just gets annoying, especially an hour after Stone has made his point.

As I’ve hinted, the film’s track record doesn’t speak very well for it, either. A glance at its Wikipedia article shows at least six distinct copycat crimes (or at least crimes inspired in part by the film), and it’s no secret that entertainment has only gotten more violent and explicit since the film’s release. If Stone was indeed trying to be satiric, then the success of the film should arguably be judged on whether it contributed to the decline of this sort of thing (would Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal have been successful if people had begun eating Irish babies?). By this measurement, the film is an abysmal failure. This criterion either matters or it doesn’t, depending on your opinion—and I personally am not prepared to say “Oliver Stone directly inspired the Columbine High School killing spree—but it’s okay because he was being ironic.” Are you?

Movie Trailer


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