It was such a long time ago since I last watched Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers that I really didn't know what to expect. I remembered it as a pretty wild, energetic, experimental and explosive film, but I had no idea whether these memories would hold up 5000+ films down the road. There was only one way to find out of course, so I sat down to revisit Stone's masterpiece once more. And guess what? It turned out to be pretty amazing still.
Oliver Stone is known for producing somewhat divisive films, often based on slightly risqué subjects. He also has a knack for political portraits and biographies, but nothing you've seen from his hand could possibly prepare you for the madness that is Natural Born Killers. The script was written by Quentin Tarantino (and while heavily revised later on, you can still expect it to be pretty violent and over the top), but the real draw is Stone's monumental and energetic direction. I don't think Hollywood has seen a similar film since.
Stone and Tarantino take a serious stab at the mediatization of reality, with the media being presented as an insatiable beast, pushing the boundaries of morals and good taste in order to show the most gruesome and spectacular footage possible. In a way this is still quite topical, only nowadays we've shifted from reality TV and live TV reporting of war, death and accidents to live-streaming vileness on Twitter and uploading torture videos on YouTube. Maybe Stone should consider a sequel.
The film follows Mickey & Mallory Knox, America's most popular mass murderer newly-weds. While they divide their time between keeping themselves out of reach from the police and keeping their killing spree alive and kicking, their popularity turns into a veritable hype amongst viewers at home. So much in fact that popular TV personality Wayne Gale sees it as an opportunity to further his career. He gathers a TV crew and starts live-broadcasting his hunt on the crazy couple.
Natural Born Killers is an extremely visual film. By modern standards it may appear a little crude and/or unfinished, but the experience is so energetic and in your face that it hardly matters. Stone incorporates every visual trick in his repertoire. From stark color filters to severely over-exposed scenes, crazy camera angles and manic editing, it's all there. Add to that a couple of animated shots, some black and white moments and a dash of handheld camera work and you might begin to grasp the visual onslaught on display here. And best of all, it never slows down, not even a little.
The soundtrack is a little less daring, though I must admit that the classic rock 'n roll sound goes well with the setting. The south-western USA vibe is one of the cornerstones of the film and the jukebox rock is a perfect fit for the characters (who look and sound like modern-day cowboys). It's not a soundtrack I would listen to separate from the film and for the most part it's more background noise than a real driver of atmosphere, but all in all it's a fitting selection of tracks that doesn't do the film any harm.
If the visuals weren't crazy enough, brace yourself for some larger than life characters. Both Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis deliver career-defining performances. I'm not a big fan of either actors (Lewis in particular can be more than a little grating in lesser films), but both are completely nailing it as Mickey and Mallory Knox. The secondary cast is equally impressive, with Robert Downey Jr. and Tommy Lee Jones as most notable additions. Tom Sizemore and Rodney Dangerfield are the cherry on the cake.
The first hour of the film is mainly focused on the hunt, but the real meat of the film is reserved for the second part. One year after their inevitable capture, Gale returns to prison for a live interview with Mickey Knox. It's the setup for an insanely hectic and bloody finale that explores how far Stone can push the concept of live TV beyond the norm of the acceptable. It's not for the squeamish and Stone really pulls out all the stops, but at the same time it's pretty refreshing to see an American film that goes full in rather than hit the brakes during its final act.
Despite its surprisingly high average on IMDb and general critical acclaim, Natural Born Killers isn't a very accessible film. It's a pretty crazy ride that revels in the violence on display, while at the same time lashing out at the media's sensationalism and the audience's lack of critical standards. If that isn't enough, the presentation itself is also quite taxing, resulting in a film that's possible a bit much for mainstream audiences. That said, I was impressed with how well the film held up after all this time. The execution may be a little crude, but the heart and soul of the film haven't aged a single day. Not the easiest film to recommend, but if you don't mind extremes, make sure you give this one a shot.