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You're not even an ape. You're a media person.

Natural Born Killers
(1994)

(SPOILERS) In which Oliver Stone loses the plot. Casting about for something new to get incensed over now he’s burnt himself out on Nam and dead presidents, Oli happens upon a Tarantino script (sold for $10k) and proceeds to take a wrecking ball to it. As a non sequitur of a cinematic experience, it’s almost as if he actively sought to piss away the good will the editing Oscar for JFK engendered (notably awarded to a different editor). As a media “satire”, Natural Born Killers reinforces criticisms that his only means of tackling a subject is napalming it.

Suffice to say, I’d not returned to Natural Born Killers since it crawled into UK cinemas in early 1995, riding the crest of furore-fanned wave (alleged copycat murders – Universal has been either especially spineless or especially shrewd, if it means increased interest later, in putting The Hunt on the shelf for the time being). My immediate reaction was to deem it of negligible value, a visually and thematically incoherent – in that, if you’re shouting about something to the point of being deafening, no one can follow your rant any more – misfire that bowdlerised Tarantino’s screenplay (he’s still upset about it). I was more interested to give the movie another go than with most Tarantino-related fare, however, because I’d found it so forfeit; any number of factors can affect how one first experiences a movie, and who knows, I might have done it an injustice (contrastingly, I knew the soundtrack very well, although I’m generally keener on the actual music tracks than the dialogue excerpts). I didn’t.

I may be mistaken, but I don’t think The Open Road, the Tarantino/Avery script that split into True Romance and Natural Born Killers, is out there. Some versions have it that True Romance is the version of Natural Born Killers a screenwriter character wrote, others that it’s the version of True Romance Clarence writes. Either way, Tarantino was embracing the mythologising of characters, and in Natural Born Killers particularly so, with a journo who makes his living from it. Stone, David Veloz and Richard Rutowski extensively rewrote the original script, shifting the focus from Robert Downey Jr’s shock TV journo Wayne Gayle – designed by Tarantino to allow for a low-budget, videotaped, point-of-view approach for significant sections – to serial killers Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis).

It’s easy to see why Stone felt he had licence to push that, less so his thick-headed assault on media causality (of which, why would someone so partial to conspiracies think the buck for society’s ills stopped with the media? Take it to the source, if you really want to grapple with the theme, Oli). Part of the problem with this is, though, that it’s very difficult to see how Mickey and Malorie have become so popular. They’re so desperately unappealing in every instance, it would take some remarkably skilful media manipulation to turn them into the Bonnie and Clyde icons they’re supposed to be riffing on.

Then there’s the problem that, if everything you’re doing is heightened, nothing stands out. Stone filmed for two months but edited for eleven, and boy, does it show. There was a criticism of Last Action Hero, a valid one, that if you’re making a big action movie anyway, it’s impossible to exaggerate that effectively in an in-movie parody of a big action movie. Natural Born Killers has no rises and falls, no real form. It’s an incessant barrage of visuals, but not in the MTV sense where there’s usually some kind of rhythm or implied stylistic continuity. Stone just cuts to cut, because he’s bored, restless, or on some serious drugs.

The bombastic quality extends to the performances. Everything has to be BIG or it’s drowned out, and the results are expectedly variable. Harrelson, whom Stone sensitively suggested had the eyes of a killer (Woody’s dad was Charles Voyde Harrelson), is too fractured to gather a performance much beyond one-note psycho, with little opportunity to bring his natural charm to bear. Just about his most effective decision is the Lennon shades. Lewis is at the zenith of her nails-on-a-blackboard, white-trash performances, which I guess is an achievement of sorts. Tom Sizemore offers an early art-reflects-life (see also Strange Days) as a gone-to-heel detective on the case, while Rodney Dangerfield appears as Mallory’s abusive father in a tone-deaf (like everything here, it’s set to eleven) sitcom version of her life.

There are some notables, however. Downey Jr, unaccountably inspired to adopt an Australian accent, struggles to keep his head above water – you can see in his career that matches with alpha directors don’t always bring out the best in him, Fincher being another – since his voice should be the biggest thing here. That’s the nature of a shock broadcaster. Occasionally he achieves that – his “Betongo, Betongo, Betongo” riff in the prison is very funny – but mostly, he’s barely able to make himself heard above the din. Perhaps surprisingly – and in contrast to most takes on his performance – Tommy Lee Jones fares best as the prison warden; presented with a seedy Vincent Price moustache and a shock of Brylcreem, he’s doing a successful version of the more renowned Harvey Two Face in the following year’s Batman Forever via Tom Waits. Steven Wright, meanwhile, as Mallory’s psychiatrist, gets the best line, in response to being told “Yet Mallory Knox has said she does want to kill you”: “I, uh, never really believe what women tell me”. Generally, though, the level of wit is typified by lines like “You’re not even an ape. You’re a media person” and “I’m doing a benefit tonight for homeless transsexual veterans”.

Tarantino may not always be the best appraiser of his own work, but he can be quite acute in assessing the flaws in others’. To wit Stone: “his obviousness cancels out his energy and his energy pumps up his obviousness”. That’s Natural Born Killers in a nutshell. It’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing. He throws everything against the wall in a hapless collage – film stocks, black and white, POV, rear projection – in support of his lunatic quest, and the results aren’t so much exhausting as nullifying. I’d say desensitising, but he might take that as a compliment going to the heart of his rally against media manipulation. Stone said of the movie “I had tried to create chaos deliberately” and the Natural Born Killers smacks of exactly that over-chewed approach.

It still surprises me how relatively well received Natural Born Killers was. Besides being aggressively unpleasant, it epitomises Stone’s subsequent career (with the odd exception): a director forced to fall on the sword of hyperactive technique when he has no (real) personal investment in the material (particularly true of the similarly risible U Turn, also Savages). The sad thing is, this feels like the career path of the director of The Hand, rather than the one who brought us Salvador, Talk Radio and JFK, wherein the spleen is directed and channelled, with acute and resonant results. 


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