Natural Born Killers

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Natural Born Killers

The $34 million film Natural Born Killers, directed by Oliver Stone, was released in August of 1994 amidst expectations that its storyline, about a serial-killing young couple named Mickey and Mallory Knox, would create another media furor similar to or even greater than the one that centered around Stone's 1991 conspiracy epic, JFK. Critics and opinion-page writers proved, rather unexpectedly, to be less antagonistic toward Natural Born Killers than JFK. Nevertheless, the former managed to spark a lively critical debate over the merits of its boldly experimental visual design, as well as a series of high-profile condemnations from public figures such as Senator Bob Dole and popular writer John Grisham regarding its high level of on-screen violence. Several "copycat" murders in at least two different countries were also blamed on the film's supposed detrimental influence on unstable viewers. The controversy was nothing new or intimidating to director Stone, who had demonstrated in the past his willingness to tackle politically and culturally volatile material in films such as Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, JFK, and Heaven and Earth. Undaunted, Stone would go on from Natural Born Killers to direct Nixon —another political thriller which landed Stone back in many pundits' ill graces. Though not as overtly political as most of Stone's work, Natural Born Killers does illustrate once more that Stone, unlike many of his big-name Hollywood contemporaries, is more interested in antagonizing his mainstream audiences than comforting them.

The plot of Natural Born Killers is divided into two main parts. Part one of the film opens in a southwestern diner, where Mickey and Mallory Knox, in the midst of a cross-country murder spree, massacre all of the employees and patrons except one, who is left behind "to tell the tale of Mickey and Mallory" to investigators. A lengthy flashback then follows, wherein details of Mallory's incestuous abuse by her father and Mallory's first meeting with delivery-boy Mickey are revealed in a segment entitled "I Love Mallory," patterned after a situation comedy. It is further revealed that Mickey was arrested and imprisoned for grand theft auto but then escaped from prison via what seems like the divine intervention of a desert cyclone. He next returned to Mallory's home to rescue her by killing her parents. The couple took to the road, killing randomly as they went and attracting the frenzied attention of the media and the law. Having established this backstory, the film introduces tabloid television reporter Wayne Gale and serial-killer expert Jack Scagnetti, both of whose destinies are intertwined with Mickey and Mallory's. As these two men chase them down, Mickey and Mallory are sidetracked into the desert, where they encounter a Native American medicine man who sees their true demonic natures and at least temporarily compels Mickey to confront his traumatic past. Terrified, Mickey kills the medicine man—an act that seemingly brings forth the desert rattlesnakes to strike and poison Mickey and Mallory. Desperately fleeing the desert to search for antivenom in a small-town drugstore, the couple are finally apprehended and beaten into submission by a police force led by celebrity-cop Scagnetti.

Part two of the film resumes a year later, after Mickey and Mallory have been tried, convicted, and then imprisoned in separate wings of the same facility. To forestall execution, Mickey has been finding ways to kill prisoners and guards, necessitating further trials. Frustrated by Mickey's strategy, the prison warden, a petty tyrant named McClusky, conspires with Scagnetti to transport Mickey and Mallory away from the prison where they can then be "shot while trying to escape." Before their plan can take effect, however, Mickey agrees to a post-Super Bowl live television interview with Wayne Gale. Mickey's dynamic interview drives his fellow inmates into a spontaneous riot, which in turn allows Mickey to kill his captors and take Gale hostage. Mickey then uses the chaos of the prison riot to rescue (again) Mallory from her cell, where Scagnetti, revealing his true intentions, has been attempting to seduce her. Mickey and Mallory kill Scagnetti and use Gale, now a willing accomplice in Mickey's acts of murder, as a human shield to leave the prison grounds; the prisoners kill and dismember McClusky. Safely away from the prison and re-united, Mickey and Mallory kill Wayne Gale and then resume their lives as outlaws.

The film evolved out of an original script written by a then-obscure Quentin Tarantino, now famous as writer/director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The script had been reviewed but rejected by many Hollywood studios by the time in 1991 when producers Don Murphy and Jane Hamsher read the script, talked to Tarantino, and agreed to develop it as a project. Murphy and Hamsher then met with Stone. Stone, though unsatisfied with the sketchy development of the Mickey/Mallory relationship, liked parts of the script well enough to commit to the project. Along with screenwriter Dave Veloz, Stone began to rework Tarantino's script to provide more background for the serial-killing lovers. Another screenwriter, Richard Rutowski, added a more metaphysical component (the recurrent "demon" imagery and dialogue) to the story. Even with the additional writers and revisions, however, most of the finished film's highlights were present in Tarantino's script, such as the opening slaughter of the patrons of a roadside diner, the killer-couple-on-the-road central plot, and the law enforcement and tabloid journalism obsessive pursuit of Mickey and Mallory. Some of Tarantino's other scenes, such as one where Mickey—acting as his own lawyer at his trial—kills a witness against him, were filmed but never included in the film's theatrical release version; some of these excised scenes are included at the end of the director's cut video.

Woody Harrelson, best known up until that point for his role as the dense but kind-hearted bartender Woody on television's long-running series Cheers, was cast as Mickey, while Juliette Lewis, a young stand-out in the 1992 remake of Cape Fear, was cast as Mallory. In other key roles, Robert Downey, Jr. was chosen for Wayne Gale, Tom Sizemore for Jack Scagnetti, and Tommy Lee Jones for Warden McClusky. All of the main actors (especially Tommy Lee Jones) played their roles as over-the-top as possible in order to match the extreme, often cartoonish nature of the film itself. According to co-producer Jane Hamsher's behind-the-scenes account, the shooting of the film in its desert and prison locales over 53 days was a nerve-jangling process. Director Stone drove his actors to ever more excessive performances and made many artistic and technical decisions spontaneously on-set. If the film's prison scenes seem more authentic than many, that is because the scenes were shot in Stateville Prison in Illinois, using real-life prisoners as extras under stringent security precautions. The Hollywood actors and production crew mingled with hundreds of hard-time prisoners to film a make-believe riot that, at times, seemed to be a little too realistic for the comfort of the guards and non-prisoners.

When principal photography was finished, editing the film took almost a full year. The end result is flashy, disorienting, and almost unheard of in mainstream Hollywood cinema. Stone, director of photography Robert Richardson, and editors Hank Corwin and Brian Berdan create in Natural Born Killers a hyperkinetic and avant garde visual style. No one camera angle is maintained for more than a few seconds, and most are much shorter. The film is a feature-length exaggeration of the destabilizing cinematic techniques Stone employed in certain scenes in Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and JFK. Different film formats (color, black-and-white, video, Super 8) and camera lenses, unusual lighting (particularly the use of neon green), deliberately obvious rear projection, variable film rate, jarring and nearly subliminal inserts of main characters transformed into demons and monsters—all contributed to the film's dizzying rush of nearly 3,000 separate images. Ironically enough, in light of the controversy surrounding the film's violence, several violent scenes were dropped during the editing process so that Natural Born Killers would receive an R and not an NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association. The film became a modest hit upon its release, in spite or probably because of the controversy, knocking that summer's long-running box-office champion Forrest Gump from the number one position the opening weekend. Natural Born Killers remains an interesting if flawed experimental film in Stone's canon of work.

—Philip Simpson

Further Reading:

Hamsher, Jane. Killer Instinct. New York, Broadway Books, 1997.

Kagan, Norman. The Cinema of Oliver Stone. New York, Continuum, 1995.

Kunz, Don, editor. The Films of Oliver Stone. Lanham, Maryland, The Scarecrow Press, 1997.

Salewicz, Chris. Oliver Stone. New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1997.