Throwback Thursday: The Day Natural Born Killers Took Over

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

We’re living in a world in which violence “sells.” It shows in advertising, pop culture, and even the news media. Violence is a multi-billion dollar industry: ratings spike when the news covers a horrific accident or violence act. Like him or hate him, Michael Moore captured the truth of this in his film, Bowling for Columbine. As Moore and his camera crew are filming in South Central L.A. (where the Rodney King riots took place), they encounter a television news camera crew. Moore asks the reporter what stories typically lead the local news. The reporter responds, “The guy with the gun.” Oliver Stone focuses on this cultural phenomenon in his 1994 film, Natural Born Killers.

Movie poster from Natural Born Killers.

Natural Born Killers original theatrical poster.

Natural Born Killers is based on a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, but Stone tweaked it to focus on our mass media culture, our tendency to make heroes out of villains, and the media’s control of that narrative. Due to the focus shifting, Tarantino gets “story by” credit, with Stone, Richard Rutowski, and David Veloz getting screenplay credit.

The film’s violence is so over the top it that you can’t take it seriously: the whole thing practically drips in blood. Stone punctuates all of this mayhem with clips from TV shows, news reports, true crime trials, and more; showing the audience that reality is not far off from the satire. Stone holds a magnifying glass up to a mirror to reflect back to us what he sees.

Natural Born Killers follows Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) as they escape her abusive parents and cut a swath of red destruction across the country. Robert Downey Jr. plays a tabloid journalist obsessed with ratings. His motto is, “If it bleeds, it leads.” He knows that Mickey and Mallory’s story will make his career. His exclusive interview with Mickey ends up inciting a prison riot (under the inept rule of Warden McClusky played by Tommy Lee Jones). It doesn’t end well for McClusky. Tom Sizemore also has a substantial role as Detective Jack Scagnetti whose fetishistic fascination with Mallory also ends badly.

Juliette Lewis, Woody Harrelson, and media circus in Natural Born Killers.

The media is never far away from the ultra-violence.

Across the board, the acting is over the top. It works because of the hyper-kinetic editing, cuts, and camera angles. These are larger-than-life characters, but still recognizable to their real-world antecedents. This film is unlike anything else in Stone’s filmography: it uses rear projection screens, green screens, color, and black and white film to highlight themes or ideas in characters heads and blend them into a visual collage. Mallory’s original home life, for example, is filmed as a ’70s sitcom with a laugh track, making the lecherous advances of her father and passive ignorance of her mother stand out even more. When Mickey and Mallory are holed up in a hotel, we see scenes of car accidents, the Vietnam War, and other imagery projected on the window of their room. Every scene is strong, in your face, and feels fast paced even in its quieter moments.

Mallory's strange home life in Natural Born Killers.

Edie McClure and Rodney Dangerfield play the parents of Juliette Lewis.

No discussion of the film would be complete without mentioning the soundtrack. The different soundscapes and the music are integral to the film. Trent Reznor produced the soundtrack and tied it to exactly what was happening on screen, which makes the soundtrack itself another type of collage. Most of the songs Reznor uses had lives of their own before the film, but his editing and interweaving of the songs with dialogue give them a new life. Leonard Cohen’s Waiting for the Miracle and Jane’s Addictions Ted, Just Admit It are integral pieces of the film.

Demon Robert Downey Jr. dripping blood.

There are so many cuts in this film: don’t blink or you might miss this great shot of demon Downey Jr.

If you want to see a nihilistic view of our culture and society, this film will satisfy. I admit that when I saw this film’s original release I was too naïve to understand Oliver Stone’s point. I came out thinking and feeling the way Mickey feels during his large interview soliloquy: I was so much a part of what Stone was critiquing that I didn’t get it. Reflection is an amazing thing: Natural Born Killers makes me want to take a step back and really examine things.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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