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25 Years Later, ‘Natural Born Killers’ Still Has Nothing to Teach Us About Violence

Back in 1994, Oliver Stone wanted to make a big, bold satire about serial killers, celebrity and the media. But in light of our recent deadly shootings, the film just feels hollower than ever.

Often when there are horrific shootings in America, Hollywood gets blamed. Guns don’t kill people, we’re told, people kill people — but apparently those violent action movies probably had something to do with it. This inane line of reasoning reared its head again recently after massacres in El Paso and Dayton, which prompted President Trump to tweet… about a movie. “Liberal Hollywood is Racist at the highest level,” he fumed, “and with great Anger and Hate. … The movie coming out is made in order to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others.” 

Presumably, he was referring to The Hunt, an upcoming satirical action-horror film that Universal pulled from its release schedule soon after Trump’s tweets. The studio said in a statement, “[W]e understand that now is not the right time to release this film,” an acknowledgement that, in the climate of recent mass killings, putting out a movie about hunting people for sport might not be the most sensitive move.  

Over the years, everything from A Clockwork Orange to The Matrix has been criticized for inspiring copycat crimes, each time reigniting the debate about whether onscreen violence provokes real-world consequences. It feels eerily appropriate, then, that one of the most notorious films about our obsession with violence celebrates its 25th anniversary today. Just don’t look to the movie for answers or insight. Its director and cowriter, Oliver Stone, was after something else — something that, years later, proves even shallower than it did at the time.

Natural Born Killers barreled into theaters on August 26, 1994, riding a wave of hype and controversy. Stone, a three-time Oscar-winner known for his blistering political dramas (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK), told the story of Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis), outlaw lovers who have killed about 50 people, always leaving a witness behind so that their myth can grow. The movie was based on a script by Quentin Tarantino, who had shocked audiences with Reservoir Dogs. (Tarantino’s commercial breakthrough, Pulp Fiction, had been a sensation at that May’s Cannes Film Festival and would hit U.S. theaters two months after Natural Born Killers.) Stone wanted his film to be as savage as his merciless murderers — which meant he had a hell of a time appeasing the MPAA Ratings Board, agreeing to roughly 150 cuts to avoid an NC-17. (Stone later recalled the fights he’d have with the board to secure that R: “We’d say, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ And they’d say, ‘We don’t know what’s wrong! Chaotic. It’s just chaotic.’ I couldn’t get past that word, because I had tried to create chaos deliberately.”)

Some of the initial reviews were ecstatic, suggesting a subversive, provocative masterpiece. “Feverish, psychedelic, insanely bloody, the movie is unlike anything you’ve seen before,” raved Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, who years later would declare the film the best of the 1990s. “It seems to have exploded directly from the filmmaker’s psyche, a gonzo-poetic head trip about America’s escalating culture of ultraviolence.” In the weeks preceding Natural Born Killers’ release, it was a movie that seemed dangerous — and Stone did nothing to discourage such hyperbolic thoughts. “It felt at one point like I was throwing up on the canvas,” Stone said in 1996 about his approach to making Natural Born Killers. “It was about capturing that mean season, from 1992 to 1994, when there was one bloody tabloid scandal after another.”

The scandals he’s referencing, which show up as a series of TV images near Natural Born Killers’ end, include the Menendez brothers’ murder of their parents, Tonya Harding, the John and Lorena Bobbitt trial and the O.J. Simpson murders. But conservatives condemned the film, seeing not commentary but, rather, immoral filth. Among its detractors was Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential candidate, who in a fundraising letter told supporters, “I just watched all I could stand of Natural Born Killers. It’s about two young people becoming celebrities by committing a series of murders. I kept thinking, with our streets under siege and our values decaying, why would anyone make a movie in which the heroes are twisted lovers on a killing binge?”

Needless to say, I couldn’t have been more excited to see the movie opening night, only to walk away from the theater thinking it was a bold but ultimately frustrating and empty experience. But a recent rewatch made me realize I’d misjudged Natural Born Killers. It’s not even that bold either.

Natural Born Killers is about several things. It’s an examination of our fascination with serial killers. It’s an attack on tabloid news. It’s an investigation into the sickening allure of movie violence. But mostly, it’s about a powerful director whose obsession with his own half-formed ideas is often more compelling than the execution of those ideas. When Stone has a strong story to guide him, like in JFK, he’s a volcanic wonder. But with Natural Born Killers, he took Tarantino’s premise — killer lovebirds — and grafted onto it a cavalcade of This Is The World We Live In laments, trying his damnedest to make his experiments and stunts signify something important. In 1994, the film was bracing in its feverish recklessness. But in 2019, in the wake of rampant shootings and other national tragedies, it feels hopelessly antiquated and insufficient to the task.

Drawing from the multimedia approach he incorporated brilliantly in JFK a few years earlier, Stone tackles his story through different filming techniques. Everything from 35mm film to video to animation was incorporated — not to mention a diverse soundtrack featuring Nine Inch Nails, Leonard Cohen, L7 and Patti Smith — as Mickey and Mallory go on the road, killing and pillaging, all the while being pursued by a troubled detective (Tom Sizemore) and a sleazy TV journalist, Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), who sees huge ratings in landing an exclusive interview.

There’s nothing particularly memorable about the plot — the couple encounter a wise old Native American (a very Oliver Stone thing to have happen), get bit by a snake, get arrested, go to jail — and the director doesn’t seem especially interested in these characters as anything other than symbols. Mickey and Mallory are The Dark American Underbelly, white-trash cyphers whose unknowability is supposed to make them more fascinating and horrifying. Wayne is Geraldo Rivera on steroids, a ridiculous caricature who talks in a goofy Australian accent and sports silly facial hair — he’s Everything That’s Wrong With The Media. 

But, ah, you see, Natural Born Killers’ story isn’t what matters! It’s merely a narrative spine so that Stone can focus on what he really cares about, which is showing us how desensitized we are to violence — and also how MTV and cable have warped our perception of reality. We’re meant to understand that, like, everything is fucked up, man. This astonishingly deep insight requires the actors to yell their lines like lunatics, affect strange mannerisms or — in the case of Tommy Lee Jones’ gratingly bizarre prison warden — both. And if you find all this a wee bit over-the-top, well, you just don’t get the joke or, worse, you’re blind — we’re living in an insane society, buddy. Wake up!

The problem is that Stone has never been much of a satirist — he’s too emphatic at all times to provide the necessary subtlety and understatement that allow humor to flourish. Weirdly, this also explains why the violence in Natural Born Killers, while gratuitous, isn’t particularly upsetting or arresting. Go back to A Clockwork Orange, another film about violence’s stranglehold on our collective consciousness, and you’ll notice that there are moments that remain unnerving. By comparison, the violence in Natural Born Killers is cartoon-y and exaggerated — bloody but bloodless.

Moving from color to black-and-white — and occasionally wielding a fleet of colored fluorescent bulbs in order to turn the entire frame, say, pungent green — Stone creates a surreal movie-ish unreality that can be agreeably trippy. There are hypnotic jump cuts and intentionally cheesy-looking rear projection, all to hammer home the fact that we now see the world through the artificial languages constructed by movies, television and music videos. But unlike the best movies about violence — mature works ranging from Unforgiven to the little-seen Shotgun Stories — there’s no sting or weight, to the killings in Natural Born Killers. Stone doesn’t care enough about his characters to give them any humanity, and so, we mostly sit through a two-hour exercise in jumbled-up cinematic techniques.

At the time, that whirligig of mediums felt indicative of a fracturing of the monoculture — a sense that the way we viewed the world was being sliced and diced into strange, disparate little pieces. But Stone’s prediction of a mass-media stew has long since become self-evident. Nowadays, to watch a parody of corny old sitcoms — which is how we witness Mallory’s childhood with sexually abusive father Rodney Dangerfield — feels quaint and obvious. Very few movies mix cinematic vernacular as brazenly as Natural Born Killers did, but when everything from I Think You Should Leave to Documentary Now! to Too Many Cooks is, essentially, recontextualizing and riffing on the media we consume, the simple fact that Stone was playing around with styles no longer feels quite so innovative or prophetic.

And unfortunately, he’s got little to say underneath that style. Not that this keeps him from saying it very loudly. Before Natural Born Killers came out, Tarantino was asked what he expected from the movie. He admitted to previously having “bad feelings” about Stone’s hijacking of his screenplay, but he said that after talking to him, “I realized something that helped defuse my feelings about it.” He continued:

“He wants you to know exactly where he’s coming from and his movies are making points and going for big emotions. He doesn’t want ambiguity. He twists emotions entirely and he’s hammering his nails in. He wants to make an impact. He wants to punch you in the face with this stuff, and when you leave the theater, he wants you to leave with a big idea. I’m more interested in telling the story. It’s not better or worse in the grand scheme; it’s just two completely different styles. When we were talking, he goes, ‘You know, Quentin, you’re like Brian De Palma or John Woo. You like making movies. You make movies and your characters are movie characters — I am making films.’ And it’s true. I am not into making films.” 

First of all, Tarantino was probably being diplomatic — I have a feeling he considers what he makes films. Second, he nailed precisely what’s so limiting about Stone — and why he was probably not the best filmmaker to wrestle with a topic that continues to enflame debate in this country. Gun violence — and Hollywood’s role in the phenomenon (if, indeed, it even has one) — is a fraught, complicated issue. And Natural Born Killers took its turn being accused of inciting copycat crimes, with at least eight murders blamed on the movie.

Watching the film now, I recognize that Stone isn’t exactly wrong about what ails this country. Misleading journalism, widespread violence and a pathological need to turn murderers into icons continue to exist. (When Mickey asks Wayne if he got better ratings than other serial killers, like Ted Bundy, it made me wince, remembering that we’re still enraptured by monsters.) But the “big idea” Stone wants to leave us with is a pretty facile one. Rather than dissecting a national sickness, he dives headfirst into its luridness. And unfortunately for him, and us, real life has outpaced his vision. It’s not celebrity murder trials that grip the country — it’s the grim, slow, steady drumbeat of random shooting sprees by anonymous, angry individuals. The magnitude of 9/11 has raised the bar on what true evil looks like — dime-a-dozen dirt bags such as Mickey and Mallory, while still abhorrent, no longer seem quite as horrific. They’re certainly not unique in their desire to spread misery and destruction.

In 2019, killing doesn’t feel as superficially “cool” as it once did — there are no slathering fanboys as we see in Natural Born Killers extolling the virtues of homicidal cretins. In a sense, killing is no longer a novelty — it’s painfully and heartbreakingly all around us, coming at us from social media and the news with alarming regularity. Natural Born Killers isn’t responsible for real-life crimes — no movie is — but the impotency of its ideas is even more striking in our despondent current moment. It’s not that Stone fails to get to the bottom of our suicidal fixation on violence — it’s that he doesn’t even bother to try.