Millennial Malaise 07: Natural Born Killers

In Which We’re On TV

Deep in the recesses on 90s culture a monster was born. A cruel demander, who we all noticed, but refused to take seriously. A beast of unfathomable hunger and power, which could alter and shift the landscape by making his mere presence know. Who was this hellish creature that slid unperturbed into every facet of American life? Why it is the great demon known as Content! The thirsting demand of an audience to always be engaged, to never be bored, for something new to await them around the corner.

Yes this monster has always been sulking in the corners of society: from the pamphlets during the Revolutionary War, to the feeding frenzy around the White Chapel murders, to the yellow papers of Hearst and Pulitzer, to the live coverage of the many political scandals of the 20th century. People always want to know, and when a story presents itself they must access it as quickly as possible. The public becomes enamored with the narratives that appear, engaged until everything was sorted out. But these movements of the media were the Content monster at an embryonic stage. The moments in time that defined its character and shape, but didn’t actually fully give birth to it’s incessant demands.

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Then the 90’s rolled around and the beast found a home in cable news, in the Internet, in a culture that could no longer be defined by the grander conflicts of the past century. If we couldn’t follow the narrative of nuclear war, what else are we gonna watch on TV. And so every moment of time had to be defined, engaged with, and provided narrative structure so that the dry gullets of a seemingly satisfied time could be slaked with the exciting tales of the bizarre and violent. This monster, this attitude, and this media structure pissed Oliver Stone off.

Up to this point in his career Stone had been a smart political and social bomb thrower: targeting times, ideas, people, and themes and then blowing them up with his bracing stylization and technique. For a while he could be seen as the once the savviest directors in mainstream film. Somehow cobbling together large scale studio productions to swipe at or define eras and people. The bracing horror and ramifications of Vietnam were brought to vivid detail with Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, the woozy hope and burnout paranoia of the 60s rendered in dizzying grandeur with JFK and The Doors, and the perils of Reaganism rendered in Wall Street and Talk Radio. But he hit a wall with his final Vietnam feature Heaven and Earth, which bombed at the box office and gained only tepid critical responses.

So what was a man like Stone to do? After the highs of JFK and the lows of Heaven and Earth Stone wanted something more straightforward that would reinvigorate his creativity after the his previous epics. And he just so happened to be handed a script by a hot new talent in Hollywood named Quenten Tarantino.

Stone heavily rewrote the story of Natural Born Killers, but the connection to Tarantino makes this feel like a transition point for the director. Stone basically worked in his own sphere for the ten years before Natural Born Killers, but with this entry into his filmography it seems like Stone is entering the world of contemporary crime fiction and indie sensibilities (even though this was a studio project). To go from the grandiose drama of JFK to the pitiless nihilism of Natural Born Killers demonstrates how Stone was able to vacillate between high and low while retaining all of his signature stylistic flourishes.

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Stone was not content to make just another gnarly crime film; no he needed an angle and how he found it in the form of constant coverage of violent events on television and cable news. So Natural Born Killers transformed into a remix of Wall Street and Talk Radio for the pre-millennial world. A movie where killing is the only way to feel, there’s no sense of morality, and the modern American only understands the world through the media they consume.

The story is almost hilariously bare bones. After escaping abuse from their parents, lovers Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) go on a killing spree across the American southwest. They are pursued by detective Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) and lionized by the media, here embodied by Australian shock host Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.). Once the murderous couple is finally caught and put in prison (overseen by Tommy Lee Jones as the warden) they incite a riot when Gale tries to interview Mickey. Mickey and Mallory make their bloody escape and remain lovers on the run.

In this simple framework Stone is able to create and all out audio/visual assault on the viewer. Cinematographer Robert Richardson employs every film stock, light, gel, and crazy camera angle imaginable to construct a frenzied atmosphere where the viewer is always left on the back heel. Lead editor Hank Corwin disorients by cutting frequently and never to the expected shot. These formal games create the sense of channel surfing through the gnarliest images imaginable. A potpourri of American culture and the violence it celebrates.

In fact one of the earliest shots in the film keys the viewer in on this structure. In a diner, before we even see Mickey or Mallory, the camera focuses in on television set in the corner. It starts on a rerun of Leave it to Beaver before the waitress flicks through some other channels. This is how it starts, with something as innocuous as Beaver and the dreary boredom of trying something to else to watch. By the end of this scene the waitress is dead. She tried to find something else to entertain her, and Mickey and Mallory can provide that to her own demise.

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This world through the filter of television is heightened even more in the film’s famous I Love Mallory segment. We see the abuse and trauma that Mallory experienced at the hands of her family through the scrubbed down filter of the sitcom. In it Stone condemns how American comedy will sanitize abuse and sexual violence for a quick and easy laugh. In a brilliant touch, Rodney Dangerfield plays Mallory’s abusive father, bouncing off his fame of playing the “I don’t get no respect” type. Mallory’s father is just a slight tweak to the characters Dangerfield would normally embody and would be considered acceptable to a large audience. In this heightened context Stone clearly notes how the funny “bad” characters on shows like The Honeymooners or All in the Family can cover for actual reprehensible attitude.

Stone’s grandest condemnation comes in the form of Wayne Gale. Stone believes that Wayne is the true villain of the piece. In an interview with critic Matt Zoller Seitz in The Oliver Stone Experience, Stone lambasts the type of people that Gale represents by saying, “What’s worse? Is it worse to kill people who actually fuck with you, or is it worse if you kill them spiritually, with what Gale does with the excretion of that he mutters every night?” In Stone’s summation the world has killers in it, and there’s nothing we can do to stop that, but we should be careful when elevate them in status and importance. The more that we shove the stories of these people down the throats of the masses, the more we inure the world to the crimes being committed.

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So when Mickey and Mallory escape the prison and cause a riot at the end of the film it’s not really their fault. No, it’s the structures that the world has created around them and to define them that is to blame. It’s Gale wanting to make these killers as big as the Super Bowl that demonstrates the true malady of modern living. It’s the feeding of the content beast that has lead us to the point of glamorizing these death merchants.

The whole of Natural Born Killers is a send up of that kind of worldview. It’s Stone taking potshots at a culture that can only understand itself through the media. Most scenes have projections of stock footage or old films in the background. The narrative is regularly interrupted by commercial breaks before returning to the carnage. And all death is presented in a heightened cinematic style that removes any sense of tangible humanity.

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However, through this setup, Stone is able to let his lovers and his film off the hook a little. This is. after all, a joke. A loud, repetitive, and violent joke, but a comedic gesture nonetheless. We’re supposed to laugh at bullets and knives flying in slow motion through the air while opera music plays with cartoon sound effects. Stone absolves his lovers by the fact that they’re lovers, and have found a pure and unfiltered way to express said love even if it is needlessly violent. Their existence is clear in a world of mundane uncertainty and petty cruelty.

And while Stone is able to hit upon ideas of abuse and violence begetting violence, he seems unable to interrogate its sources any further than his general idea of the media being bad. Not once is America’s relationship with guns brought up, even as their phallic entities are constantly shot with charm and fun, and the violence against women feels like a tossed off provocation in most scenes.

It’s hard to discern if Natural Born Killers is actually a good film. It’s an audacious one, and the unique vision of an undeniable talent. But’s its endless browbeating on its chosen target eventually becomes more than a little exhausting. And from the perch of an even more media statured environment it’s easy to see the movie as a product of its time, lashing out at the symptoms of issues instead of digging into the heart of the problem. But there is a kernel of truth to the whole thing, that systems do support the worst in our world, I just don’t know if Stone’s vision holds water due to the anarchic style he sprays on the screen. If all you’re doing is yelling it’s sometimes hard to find the point even if one is being made.

Odds and Ends

  • You know this is a movie made in the mid 90s because it prominently features both Juliette Lewis and Tom Sizemore.
  • Despite having most of his notable films released in the decade, Stone feels apart from the other big name provocative auteurs of the time like Tarantino, Soderbergh, and Anderson. He’s more the curdled Baby Boomer than the jilted Gen Xer.
  •  As much as I am baffled by some of his films I have a huge soft spot for Stone’s work during this time. Something about the over obvious stylistic excess is more than a little enduring.
  • I can’t tell if Downey’s accent in this movie is supposed to be a joke, because it is very bad.

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Next Week: Romance month ends with the email based courtship of Nora Ephron’s 1998 film You’ve Got Mail