Another Look: Natural Born Killers (No Stars) still deserves the Golden Sombrero

Natural Born Killers – 1994

Director Oliver Stone
Screenplay Richard Rutowski, Oliver Stone, David Veloz story credit to Quentin Tarantino
Starring Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore, Rodney Dangerfield, Edie McClurg, Balthazar Getty, Russell Means, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Arliss Howard

In October of 2019, there was an article in The Hollywood Reporter stating that Warner Brothers declined to pick up the option of releasing an even gorier version of Natural Born Killers for its 25th Anniversary. Oliver Stone would like to think it’s because they are too “…scared of the movie.” Well, it could be that.

I think it’s just like Dennis Miller said about K-Mart’s blue light specials:

“Folks, two of shit…is shit.”

This movie is beyond bad. It’s juvenile and vile for no real reason. I know that Stone has a stated reason. He’s indicating media is the source of these killings. Well, media and a bunch of other stuff. His male lead Mickey Knox (Harrelson) remarks within the same paragraph that he’s evolved beyond being human, and then he’s a “natural born killer.” You might think they’d have worked this out before the script was finished.

The story, near as the script can tell, is about couple Mickey and Mallory (Lewis) Knox. They’re on a killing spree, starting with Mallory’s parents. They turn her father (Dangerfield) into a sweaty sexual predator. The mother (McClurg) as a bystander. They’re guilty and killed. The first people we see in a cafe at the beginning of the story are rednecks either fat, slutty or both. They’re guilty and killed.

Nearly everyone who is killed in the film have some sort of guilt for which they have not atoned. Media, police, prison guards, even the person doing the lighting for an interview are all complicit, guilty and must be killed. There is one guardian angel character played by Arliss Howard who will be spared. Or he’ll just disappear when they no longer need him. Convenient.

The story follows the couple on the road where they come across a Native American and his grandson (son lost to Vietnam). The grandfather will spout a bunch of kabuki about the demon in native tongue after they get the two to ingest a peyote like substance. Then Mickey kills him. It’s okay with the older man, he saw it in a vision 20 years earlier. It’s not okay with Mickey or Mallory though, and while they despair the peyote leads them to believe they’ve been bitten by a bunch of rattlesnakes. Eventually they’re caught in a poorly designed and executed series of buildup.

The last half of the film takes place in prison. It’s a disgusting place filled with disgusting people like the Warden (Jones) and the cop that busted them (Sizemore) who’s just visiting to, you know, rape one of the inmates.

Many other deaths appear in the headlines. Some of these, I am sure, are intended for the special, special, special Director’s Cut. I am sure they all had it coming. But not in the poetic, sadly beautiful way Clint Eastwood proclaimed in Unforgiven, released in 1992. That movie had a story and a purpose. It nailed the dismount. Natural Born Killers (NBK) feels like sloppy seconds.

Stone films NBK in a frenetic, psychedelic style. It feels like the kind of shit Stone probably enjoyed from the late ’60’s through the following decade. He did something similar in the better, but still not good JFK. Are these images insights into the mind of the killers? Sure, I guess. They’re not necessarily supposed to be clear. The subliminal messaging gets to be tiresome in the first 5 minutes. Then we get 115 more minutes of this shit, even as we roll through the credits.

The producers of the film tried cashing in on the rising fame of Tarantino. This film is nothing like anything he’s produced, even if it’s less violent than some of his films. There is a logic to Tarantino that is completely absent here. One can see evidence of acting in some of what Harrelson does, but its buried. Everyone else acts like they’re getting ready to appear on the Morton Downey, Jr. show.

This film feels like everyone in front of and behind the camera has ingested substances. This film, along with The Doors and JFK, are part of the big downfall of Stone’s career after years of riding the high of Platoon. He blamed a lot of people for this, like it was some sort of conspiracy. The big fight about the edits became the girlfriend in Canada no one ever met, until they released the Director’s Cut 2 years later. Then 25 years later, he is still saying there’s stuff out there on the cutting room floor that can prove how good the film is…really.

The real conspiracy is, with the editing style and stupid storytelling, people just don’t like watching a bad film. Well, maybe some people. The Columbine killers code named their attack “NBK.”

(no stars out of *****)

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