Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers is not a subtle film. It's an attack as much as it is a movie, but anyone familiar with Oliver Stone shouldn't be surprised by that. What he's saying is no surprise, but he does manage to say it in a truly unique way, creating characters both evil and watchable at the same time. 

The story is a simple one, but the most striking element is how it's told. Stone's constantly changing style gives the experience a dreamlike hallucinogenic quality. The initial flashes between black and white and color, at one point showing the same scene skewed by the change, only intensifies as the film progresses. Old newsreels, Nature footage of rattlesnakes, fireworks on a screen behind them, giant movie monsters, headlines, violent snarling cartoon characters, you really don't know what you'll be looking at next. Mickey and Mallory's America is so media saturated that when they cruise the highways, they drive against and into movie screens reflecting their moods. The media colors everything in the film so obviously that you have to ask if the presentation is also the story.

Woody Harrelson is fantastic as Mickey Knox, half of the mass murdering duo known to the admiring world at large as "Mickey and Mallory"  Mickey is cool and calculating. He's not overly bright but doesn't really need to be as his only objective is to kill people and make keep Mallory happy (although the second isn't so easy.)

Julette Lewis' Mallory is perhaps more disturbed than Mickey, except that her main concern is being thought of as sexy. We see their meeting in a flashback scene, stylized brilliantly as a twisted Leave it to Beaver like sitcom in which Rodney Dangerfield, using his well known comic persona to twisted and disturbing effect, is Mallory's father, who rules the house by force. He brags about beating his wife and talks openly about sexually abusing his daughter. His disturbing and violent language is accompanied by a laugh track which pops up at the least laughable moments, as well as other standard sitcom sound effect staples such as applause when Mickey shows up to the door as a meat delivery man, delivering 50 lbs of meat. Seeing Mallory on the stairs while Mickey waits for her father, he takes an instant liking to her suggesting that she dressed attractively because fate told her he was coming today. They steal her father's car. He calls the cops and Mickey goes to prison. Mallory visits him there and when she tells him her father is moving them so he can't find her, he takes advantage of a tornado while out on work detail to shoot some guards steal a horse and escape.

The first thing they do is kill Mallory's parents, her father for the abuse, and her mother for doing nothing about it. Mallory turns to her little brother Kevin in the hallway,as the fire they started with her mother spreads and says 'You're free now Kevin." as the fire grows and applause cuts in.

They get married on a bridge over a river, exchanging blood from their palms over the water. Mickey uses "the power vested in me as god of my world." to make it official.

In present day Mickey and Mallory travel around killing people, and stealing money. They keep to certain codes, such as, at every mass murder scene they leave one person alive to tell the story and spread their fame. The codes have variations however, to many a victim's surprise.

While they continue killing, the American public celebrates them, Stone doesn't hesitate to cut from them to scenes of their fans wearing "Kill Me Mickey" T-shirts, waving picket signs of support, or being interviewed by news crews about why they love Mickey and Mallory. Of course, just because they kill people together, they don't escape relationship problems. Mallory is insecure, and Mickey is insensitive. They clearly love each other, but each is shown as a product of a fractured background without the knowledge to get past it.

Their exploits are followed closely by Detective Jack Scagnetti, a cop obsessed with mass murderers. In his own way he is just as twisted as they are, and he is also as hungry for fame. Scagetti is writing a book called "Scagnetti on Scagnetti."  The title is a fitting choice for a character as self obsessed as they get. He is obsessed with catching Mickey and Mallory, and beyond that just with Mallory. Sizemore plays Scagnetti perfectly as a character without an ounce of humanity beyond his obsession. He's as ugly as they are, but they at least have some feeling for each other.

Robert Downey Jr., plays Wayne Gale, the star and producer of a tabloid news show revolving around killers called, "American Maniacs" He covers all the celebrated mass murderers and serial killers presenting himself as a crusader for justice, although behind the scenes he's contemptuous of his viewers, and treats both his wife and misstress terribly. His only concern is ratings, and how he appears on the screen.

Mickey and Mallory continue killing but can't escape the relationship problems they've learned from their childhoods. Upset that Mickey is looking at the pretty hostage tied up in the corner while making love to her, Mallory takes off to a gas station, seduces the attendant and kills him when he doesn't please her. Mickey meanwhile has the hostage to occupy him. They reunite quickly and things start to fall apart. Their issues only get worse as they drive while tripping on mushrooms. Things get worse when they run out of gas in the desert and they are forced to wander on foot to find gas or transportation.

They find the lodge of an Old Indian, who doesn't speak English. He recognizes them, however as having "The demon" and "too much tv"  The Indian starts a ritual presumably to help them. He tells them a story about a woman nursing a rattlesnake back to health, and when bit, finds the snake unsympathetic, reminding her that he's a rattlesnake.  He handles his own rattlesnake while telling the story and releases it from the lodge saying "Go and be a snake now."
Mickey and Mallory experience visions which end when Mickey gets up and shoots the Old Indian. Mallory is upset about this and scolds Mickey like a dog, saying "Bad, Bad."  The Indian says he knew they were coming as he'd seen them in a dream years ago,

Rushing away from the scene they're bitten by rattlesnakes, Mallory much more than Mickey. They take the Indian's truck and head for the city (driving alonside hellish nightmare imagery) finding "Drug Zone"  a Walmart style emporium with shelves full of any cheerfully labeled drug solution you could think of except for "Snake Bite Juice" Mickey finds a clerk behind the glass (who happens to be watching American Maniacs feauturing Mickey and Mallory) The clerk hits the silent alarm and when Mickey realizes it, he kills the clerk, ahile telling barely conscious Mallory to run and get the car. The cops are outside already and they grab Mallory easily. Mickey kills many of the cops before tossing his weapon so Scagnetti won't cut Mallory with a knife. Mickey kills several more cops with his own knife when they try to grab him, until being tasered to the ground. They beat him for quite a while with billy clubs after he's immobile. The whole incident is captured on camera.

One Year later Scagnetti is called to Warden Dwight McKluskey's (Tommy Lee Jones) prison to escort Mickey and Mallory to an electro-shock type treatment. Mckluskey's reasoning is that Scagnetti, the celebrated cop who apprehended them, will be quickly cleared should "an accident" happen on the trip. Jones is terrific as a no nonsense warden who doesn't hesitate to administer hands on punishment. He's also as self absorbed as any of the other characters jumping at the chance to be a celebrity himself. Scagnetti reveals that he is also damaged, his career inspired by Whitman's clock tower shooting of his mother when he was a boy.

Wayne Gale is also present at the prison, trying to talk Mickey into an exclusive interview. Mickey is clearly pleased that his ratings are better than everyone except Charles Manson. When Mickey agrees plans need to be changed to allow the interview. Mckluskey agrees to allow it on Superbowl Sunday in the interests of furthering his own name and celebrity.

Scagnetti takes advantage of the delay by spending some time alone with Mallory. Although warned by the guards that she's killed people in her cell, he insists, being sexually fascinated with her. Mallory encourages him enough that he strips down to his boxer shorts and a tie. She attacks him when he's vulnerable and they struggle while the interview is going. A riot also occurs possibly incited by Mickey's pronouncement that he's a "Natural Born Killer" (a soundbite Gale is ecstatic with)

Mckluskey and most of the guards leave to take care of the riot and Mickey uses the confusion to take a guard's gun and kill most of those with him leaving a guard for a hostage along with Gale and most of the camera crew to televise their escape live. They rush to get Mallory, giving her the chance to kill Scagnetti. The prisoners overtake the prison and Gale quickly joins Mickey and Mallory in killing any guards in the way, exclaiming that he feels so alive the whole time.

The prisoners tear Mckluskey apart and Mickey and Mallory end up in the woods with Gale and a videocamera. to cover their last murder (Gale) before they retire and start a family. Gale pleads for his life, but Mickey informs him that he's scum and to try and have a little dignity. All of the characters involved are a product of their upbringing and the media. But Mickey and Mallory of all the characters involved become the most sympathetic in that they as opposed to Gale, Scagnetti and McKluskey want something bigger than themselves and despite the fact that they're intentionally evil, can at least try to love another human being. Not that this is encouraging as they prospect of Mickey and Mallory raising a family is a frightening one. They're cold blooded killers alright, but at least they don't lie about it and manipulate the masses.

It should also be mentioned that Natural Born Killers has one of the best soundtracks imaginable, using Leonard Cohen's deep brooding to great effect, as well as tracks from the Cowboy Junkies, Bob Dylan, Nine Inch Nails, Lou Reed and many others. The songs blend seamlessly into the movie and really enhace the experience. Also of note, Quentin Tarantino wrote the starting screenplay, which was heavily modified but shows through in parts such as the opening diner scene. I can't tell you if you'll like it or not, but I will say it isn't as much about killers as it is about a media with obvious disdain for its audience. It's a unique picture which has a lot to say in a very interesting and direct way.


TirzahLaughs said...

The truth is I've always hated this movie. LOL. It actually started my hate-on for Woody Harrelson.

I hated the multi-media look of it. I hated the cartooniness of it. I hated how loud and disjointed it felt.

I realize that the style of the film reflects the message of the film but I detested it. It was torture to watch. I couldn't wait for it to be over. Like a dentist doing your gynecologist visit.

I know that this film is important to movie making. It changed how movies, especially movies with a social message are shot but I still hated it. Wouldn't watch it again for anything.


INDBrent said...

Hi Tirzah,

Yeah, I can totally see why someone could hate it. Even if you appreciate the message It really is very obnoxious. I don't think it's WOody's fault though!

Unknown said...

I am so grateful for your review. It IS a hard movie to watch with the quick cuts, color/b&w, the memorable sitcom sequence, but hard to look away. I don't think it's a movie I could see more than once every 10 years, but it is a very important film. And those 10 years are just about up. Your review was wonderfully written, and touched upon some of Stone's must ballsy - albeit annoying - film-making. Cheers!

INDBrent said...

Hi Bridget,

yes, at times it's almost painful , the sitcom in particular is excruciating. I don't blame anybody for disliking this one, but I agree it's an important one, and the music is tremendous too!

Mandy said...

Those were great times. I remember The Crow, Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction all came out at around the same time and I bought the soundtrack to all three. My favourite of the three films was The Crow but I agree with you that the soundtrack for this one was the best. My best film and soundtrack came out a year later though and that was Strange Days.

Anonymous said...

I really like this film and the soundtrack is excellent. Robert Downey jnr is superb, in fact they all are in this film.

INDBrent said...

@petedenton Definitely a terrific soundtrack and all the actors were wonderful, I quite agree!