Natural Born Killers: The Director's Cut: Ixtlan Productions/ Warner Bros.
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Rating: USA: Unrated/ Ireland: Banned/ UK: 18/ Germany: 18/ Netherlands: 16/ Australia: R
I'll admit it...when I first saw Oliver Stone's (WALL STREET, PLATOON) NATURAL BORN KILLERS back in 1994, I hated it. I thought it was a largely self-indulgent effort by a director who was continuing on his journey into lunacy. I thought the film was reprehensible, not because of the huge amounts of cartoon violence, or because it glorified mass murder, but because it was an empty experience. For all of Stone's sound and fury, the film ultimately signified nothing.
Jump ahead to the present--It's been six years since I first saw the film. Times have changed dramatically and NBK has just been released as a Director's Cut on DVD. Feeling adventurous, I decide to give the film another shot--and what a difference it makes.
NATURAL BORN KILLERS is the story of Mickey (Woody Harrelson: WHITE MEN CAN'T JUMP, INDECENT PROPOSAL) and Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis: FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, STRANGE DAYS, ROMEO IS BLEEDING), two young, star-crossed lovers with a propensity for mass murder. Together, they cut through the American Southwest leaving death, destruction, and one lone survivor at each crime scene to tell the story in their wake. They're chased (and ultimately captured) by tough guy cop Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore: TRUE ROMANCE, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, THE RELIC).
A year later, Mickey and Mallory are being confined at the Botanga State Penitentiary, run by psychotic warden Dwight McCluskey (Tommy Lee Jones: THE FUGITIVE, JFK). Schlock tabloid reporter Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.: IN DREAMS, CHAPLIN) has arranged for a live, one on one interview with Mickey to be broadcast immediately following the Superbowl. From there, a riot explodes as the inmates are egged on by Mickey's speech, and all hell breaks loose.
Working with a script from Quentin Tarantino (who only gets a story credit) Stone and company essentially update the whole BONNIE AND CLYDE/BADLANDS subgenre of films, giving it all a 90's twist by showcasing our burgeoning fascination with the criminal mind and how the media is often largely responsible for inspiring it. In the skewed universe of the film, Mickey and Mallory become iconic anti-heroes, inspiring a media frenzy at their trial, and earning the adulation of an adoring public (several of whom carry signs saying "Murder me Mickey!")
But, is the universe in the film as skewed as it seems? Stone holds a mirror up to our culture, and the results aren't pretty. Sure, it's a funhouse mirror, distorting things to the extreme, but in this post-O.J. America, are we really all that different from the public and media portrayed in the movie? Charles Manson's on t-shirts, Fox constantly regales us with shows of videotaped carnage, serial killers like Richard Ramirez and Jeffrey Dahmer fascinate us to the point of being celebrities, and the list goes on. Therein lies the brilliance of Stone's film--he gave us a glimpse of the future before it came to be.
The film's delightful to watch, mainly because it appears to be the largest budgeted student film ever made. Stone pulls out all the stops here, experimenting with visual technique with some satisfying results. The film's shot on just about every format available--everything from grainy 8MM to majestic 35MM, but it doesn't stop there. We're also treated to animation, documentary style black and white footage, luridly lit sets, rear projection scenes from other films and TV shows in backgrounds and on buildings, and more. Mix that in with the hyper quick MTV-style edits and the frenetic camerawork, and you've got a visual tableau that consistently assaults the viewer with images that reinforce Stone's vision. It's akin to watching a travelogue of a vacation to Hell.
Still, intriguing directorial techniques aside, the film's not without some flaws. The worst of them appears to be the lack of thematic unity throughout the film's narrative. Stone seems unsure as to whether he wants Mickey and Mallory to represent pure natural born killers, or to serve as examples of how the affects of parental abuse can turn children into adult monsters. Clearly, he can't have it both ways, but that doesn't stop Stone from trying--which lessens the film's impact.
Also bothersome is the film's ending, which appears to contradict the movie's central premise. The alternate ending included on the DVD and laserdisc is somewhat more satisfying (and honestly, rings much truer, as well). See both versions if you can and decide for yourself.
The film's performances are all solid, especially Woody Harrelson's. Harrelson takes what is basically a comic book character and manages to give him depth and resonance as well as some social relevance. Rodney Dangerfield shines in a small role as Mallory's loutish father. Robert Downey Jr,'s Wayne Gale comes across as an over the top Geraldo with a Robin Leach accent, but it works. Jones' warden is an amalgamation of every power crazy redneck jailer in film history, and it works much better for him here than it did in his turn as Two-Face in BATMAN FOREVER.
The only weak performance in the film comes from Lewis. She sells Mallory's white trash side well enough, but she tends to come across as more annoying than frightening or sensual, thus making it hard to believe that anyone would find her sexy or alluring.
The new DVD (as well as the laserdisc box set before it) features a ton of extras, including a documentary, deleted scenes, and a commentary track by Stone himself. The deleted scenes (including the alternate ending) are all entertaining, especially the one where Mickey cross-examines Ashley Judd at his trial. Stone's commentary is a bit monotonous, as he seems to be more interested in telling us about his thought process behind each scene instead of any anecdotal information about each particular sequence.
Ultimately, NATURAL BORN KILLERS seems to be even more relevant now in this post-O.J./ Columbine era. While some are quick to label it as a film that inspires violence, anyone who comes away from the film seeing it as an incitement to commit murder is both not to bright and has missed the point entirely. Stone's film is, for the most part, a black comedy. It's a satirical look at some of the ills plaguing our society--one that seems to keep getting better with age.
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