Monday, September 13, 2010

Oliver Stone: Natural Born Killers

After the box office failure of Heaven and Earth Oliver Stone was crushed. His final entry into his Vietnam trilogy – his most impassioned labor of love – was met with resounding apathy from the critical and commercial masses, and all he wanted to do was make a straight-forward action film with an easy shooting schedule after the grueling experience of filming on location in Saigon for Heaven and Earth. What Stone found was a script by then-plucky up-and-comer Quentin Tarantino (who at the time of shopping his script around wasn't known for Pulp Fiction) called Natural Born Killers. Stone's initial idea was to make into an action film that "Arnold Schwarzenegger would be proud of"; however, O.J. Simpson and the onslaught of what is now known as "Reality TV" coverage changed the tone of the picture Stone intended to make.

Natural Born Killers is very much indebted to Bonnie and Clyde both in narrative and in style (it's essentially Stone's road movie and the filmmaker pays homage to Penn's classic film with his multiple shots/switching between slo-mo and normal speed during the final killing). The story (as if you don't know) follows Mickey (Woody Harrelson playing wonderfully against type) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) and the road they travel while on a killing spree that seems to be sweeping the nation. The killers gather somewhat of a cult following as the white trash killers are seen as a kind of anti-hero thanks to the glamorization of "Hard Copy"-esque television shows like the one run by Australian newsman Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.). Hot on their trail is another media created figure, Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), a wannabe Serpico who has written the "how-to" book on tracking serial murderers. Throughout Mickey and Mallory's journey we become privy to their past (Mallory's abusive adolescence is filmed in the style of 1950's sitcom as her father, played by Rodney Dangerfield, hints at molestation and incest while a laugh track blares in the background), how they met, and how they came to be seen as celebrities. All of this crescendos to an intensely violent and frenetic prison exodus, and a final shot that hammers home the point of the film.

The story (which is still credited to Tarantino) was changed almost scene for scene by Stone, and instead of making his action picture, he added a whole lot of subtext to the film. However, what's funny is that the Tarantino influence is apparent in the soundtrack (the Leonard Cohen song that bookends the film is a brilliant touch) and the hyper-kinetic pop culture aesthetic, even though Stone virtually changed every aspect of Tarantino's original script, and had the film been solely that then I think I could easily call it his best film. However, the one thing that really hurts the film is the extra obviousness of the film's message that Stone places at the very end of the film. Rather than just relying on his audience to understand what he was doing (how could we not…it's not as if Stone is a subtle filmmaker) throughout the film with his message that we are a media-crazed society that will always be interested in mass murderers as long as we know the safety of commercials – or the remote – will suppress our fears of this "reality" ever becoming realty, Stone adds a superfluous ending that is so awful in heavy-handedness ("channels" are being flipped through images of Rodney King, The Mendes Brothers, Tanya Harding) so we can see how we've made celebrities out of people who understand that if they do something stupid, the media (and their audience) will not only cover it, but will make sure they get everything out of those 15 minutes of fame. The reason this ending feels tacked-on (and tacky) is because Stone has already made his point ad-nauseam with his aesthetic choices throughout the film.

The aesthetic of the film is what Stone does brilliantly, making the viewer hyper-aware that we're always watching a movie with all of these cuts (nearly 3000 were used, twice as many as a normal two hour movie); this is nothing more than a comic book on display, and it's brilliant in the way he switches aesthetics the same way many people switch from channel to channel. The intersplicing of Coke commercials and stock footage of happy families watching television is especially inspired (Coke was actually quite pissed at Stone after the fact at giving him permission to use their ads not knowing what the final product would look like), and the use of multiple film stocks and filters to evoke the characters mood slaps you right in the face (there is nothing subtle about this movie). Roger Ebert said in his initial review of the film that: "[s]eeing this movie once is not enough. The first time is for the visceral experience, the second time is for the meaning." I agree with Ebert, and in fact, I would say that seeing this movie three times isn't enough to fully understand everything Stone and his crew (again, the great Robert Richardson is his DP) are saying with the aesthetic they're employing (Trent Reznor, who wrote the music for the film, apparently watched the film over 50 times to get in the right frame of mind to begin writing the music that would match Stone's vision).

Stone and his DP Robert Richardson use different aesthetics to serve different purposes. Stone called this switching of styles "vertical cutting" so that basically every time something switches from black and white to grainy 16mm to whatever other piece of trickery Stone feels like using, the point is always to show the difference between what they see and what they're thinking. The prime example of this is in the film's opening scene as Mickey and Mallory massacre innocent victims in a truck stop diner. The scene is shot through various styles as we see the waitress asking Mickey a question (shot in color, and, as most scenes in the movie are shot, in a canted angle), and then we see the same question being asked in slow motion in black and white as we're now seeing things as Mickey sees them. While this "vertical cutting" may just be a fancy way of saying that Stone and his crew wanted to throw every stylistic technique they could think of at the audience, it actually works in displacing the viewer – never allowing us to really empathize with the characters, or make them into romantic figures like Bonnie and Clyde. During the "vertical cutting" Stone frequently flashes bits of violence before they happen (Mickey laughing at the camera with blood on his face, or Mallory dancing in the diner covered in blood before they kill anyone) to show us what the killers are thinking, and how they get off on these images of violence.

The psychedelic, almost hallucinogenic aesthetic that Stone tinkered with in The Doors, and the "vertical cutting" style (he tinkered with this, too, in JFK)come together to create a visceral experience unlike any other American film made in the 90's. I especially liked the way Stone uses projected backgrounds to tell us that Mickey and Mallory are products of a violent society. In a fascinating meta-moment, Mickey and Mallory watch Scarface (written by Stone) on a motel television while images of Stalin and world destruction are projected onto the window. They're oblivious to the type of evil in society that has created them, but they're fully aware of the type of evil and violence glamorized in Hollywood that plays out on their motel television set. It's scenes like this that show just what a fantastic filmmaker Stone could be, and it's a damn shame that he had to further punctuate (not to mention italicize and underline) his thematic points with the unnecessary footage at the end. Everything this film is about can be summed up in the motel scene. It's one of the best scenes in the movie, and proof that the visuals – the visceral nature of the film its projected background, its various tints (especially the film's use of green), fast-moving skylines, Dutch angles, and imagery of snakes and other mystic animals – of Natural Born Killers keeps it from ever becoming a dated experience.

There are more than a few standout moments in the film, and to simply re-tell them would not only be boring to read about, but miss the point of the film…which is that this film must be experienced. I know that sounds cliché, but like Pulp Fiction, Stone's film will forever be chained to the 90's as the perfect symbol for the simulacrum, the copy of a copy the emerging era of television, of home entertainment, called "Reality TV". It manifests itself into "real" shows like true crime stories, or, even worse, shows that are nothing more than a generation of X'ers and Y'ers living vicariously through celebrities who are more infamous than famous (helllllooooo Kardashian's!). Of course what we're seeing is not real, it's very produced and superficial (how real is a "Reality" show when multiple cuts are used with yet they're only filming with one camera?), and Natural Born Killers is always making you aware that what you're watching was so obviously produced by people who are using film and media to manipulate your experience. I was actually struck by the shocking difference in tone found in something like Wall Street as opposed to Natural Born Killers; both, interestingly enough, acting as perfect representations (in attitude, tone, narrative, and style) for their respective generations. You had the the get-it-anyway-you-can Generation Me crowd who despite their capitalistic ways, was usually the type of person that was a go-getter. Contrast that with the generation of the 90's, the X's and the Y's, and how experiences would become more simulated. Why work hard for that sports car when you could just drive one on the latest PlayStation while sitting in a leather chair that emulates the shocks and jolts of driving while surround sound speakers installed into the chair give one the experience of actually being on the road in the car. Experiences were becoming more and more something experienced through the television screen -- something filtered through another person's point of view -- and Stone's film really has its finger on the pulse of this notion.

As I mentioned the film is filled with numerous scenes that act as brilliant visual representations for Stone's metaphors, and onne of my favorite scenes of the movie is when Scagnetti and Warden McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones in a fantastic, maniacally over-the-top performance) are walking through the prison to where Mickey and Mallory are being held. It's a fluid tracking shot that is broken up the switching of aesthetics – the "vertical cutting" – that we've seen throughout the film. What I like most about it, though, is that it's a perfect representation of the descent into hell we've been experiencing all film; the pacing of the scene is manic and paranoid (perfect seeing as how these two characters are the most unhinged), switching from black and white to grainy stock. The use of sound, too, throughout the scene is apt as we hear animalistic noises coming from the cells (Stone invited this kind of atmosphere on set as he would play African tribal music as loud as he could throughout the filming process to emulate the mood of this scene).

Natural Born Killers is a polarizing film – about as polarizing as the man who made it – and is not to everyone's taste; however, it is undoubtedly one of the most important films of the 90's. It is, perhaps, one of the most stylistically ambitious films we'll ever see from an American filmmaker in the modern age of the "safe bet" studious. The all-in aesthetic of Stone and his crew is something that felt more at home in art house theaters with French subtitles accompanying it, but here was one of the most popular and controversial of American filmmakers trying his hand at an art exercise. Entertainment Weekly named it one of the ten most important films of the 90's, and it does make one remember a time when major American filmmakers like Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese weren't afraid to try something new, exciting, and well, anarchistic in tone (seriously, Oliver, your new Wall Street film is PG-13…I sure hope it has some balls); the kind of tone where you would watch and feel exhilarated by the "anything-can-happen" mentality of the filmmakers. It's a masterpiece that upon my most recent viewing has me re-thinking my stance on JFK as my favorite Oliver Stone film.

Everything would feel "safe" for Stone after this, as he had one last great swing in him with Nixon, but completely lost touch with his audience, and himself, as he abandoned all of the talent on display during his prolific years for hack tendencies with the atrocious neo-noir U-Turn and the annoying film that tried too hard, Any Given Sunday.


  1. Great look at the film, Kevin - one I admit didn't thrill me when I saw it on its release. I think part of the trouble was the heavy-handedness you mentioned in your article as well as the fat that, at the time, I think this kind of rapid-fire editing and visual changes just weren't as commonplace as they are now.

    Which means that Stone was definitely ahead of his time, and that I really need to see this film again - 16 years is too long!

  2. How I despise this film, let me count the ways. I won't. I'll just leave the link to my review: It's shorter: click here. One interesting thing about Tarantino. I interviewed him for Pulp Fiction around the time of NBK. He wanted his name completely removed, but was grateful that Stone at least just let it read "Story by". His comment was that if you liked NBK, it's Oliver. If you hate it, it's Oliver. He wanted to accept no part of it. I for one can hardly blame him. It's hard for someone without a sense of humor to try to make a satire.

  3. I would definitely agree that this is on the most important films of the 1990s and thoroughly enjoyed your review! However, I do disagree with one point you made:

    "Stone adds a superfluous ending that is so awful in heavy-handedness ("channels" are being flipped through images of Rodney King, The Mendes Brothers, Tanya Harding) so we can see how we've made celebrities out of people who understand that if they do something stupid, the media (and their audience) will not only cover it, but will make sure they get everything out of those 15 minutes of fame. The reason this ending feels tacked-on (and tacky) is because Stone has already made his point ad-nauseam with his aesthetic choices throughout the film."

    I think that Stone was thinking ahead and how the film would be regarded by future generations. At the time the film came out I would've agreed with you and that Stone had put too fine a point on it but now that many years have passed - whole decade since the 1990s it actually works very well as it basically encapsulates the tabloid culture of those years in a wonderful montage. My only gripe is that in later editions of the DVD Stone took out NIN's "Burn" that played at the end. What a great song and fantastic in-yer-face aural assault to end things with. Oh well...

    I remember when this film came out that one reviewer commented that it felt like a film made by an angry young man and not a seasoned veteran like Stone but he really let it all hang out with this subversive film... I still can't believe a major studio backed it! Every so often, something like this happens - a subversive film gets made within the system and released. FIGHT CLUB was the same way.

    Great write-up!

  4. Chris:

    Stone definitely was ahead of his time. And I felt as if the rapid-fire editing, as it did in his previous films, actually served a purpose. Of course, a lot of people disagree (see Ed's comment below), but I think that Stone was onto something here. Thanks for reading and for the comment!

  5. Ed:

    I think it's too easy to get caught up in the Tarantino effect with this film. I solely looked at it as an Oliver Stone picture, and even though I understand that he is quite the polarizing filmmaker, I guess I don't understand the argument that the satire doesn't work. Your assessment of Stone is right, however, in that he doesn't have much of a sense of humor, but I don't think he's trying to be satirical with the material. I saw it as another angry Oliver Stone message movie. However, if Tarantino made it...then yes, it would be satire.

    I really liked your review for the film, and I can understand all of the problems you have with it. From the outset of this retrospective I was aware that Stone was a filmmaker (and especially his 90's output) that people had a love/hate relationship with. I'm glad we finally have an opinion from the "hate" camp (in regards to this film...I don't know how you feel about his other work).

    I will say this about Tarantino: It seems like he's moved on. I think he was a little more pissy back then, and he's cooled down quite a bit since and claimed that he even likes it as an Oliver Stone movie. I'm not saying you did this in your review, but I do think a lot of the film's detractors were unable to separate the Tarantino/Stone thing at the time of the film's release, and were instead reviewing the movie they wanted to see as it was written by Tarantino, instead of focusing on the films as an Oliver Stone film.

    Of course, it could just be that people thought the film was a giant piece of shit. That's understandable, too, hehe.

    Thanks for stopping by and checking this out. Always a pleasure to have you around these parts!

  6. J.D.:

    About the ending: perhaps I'm just being grumpy, hehe, but that ending just didn't do it for me this go-round. My formative years were during the mid-90's and I don't think I'll ever forget those for me, they felt tacked on because I felt like I was fully aware of what Stone was going for the entire time.

    I love your final comment about NATURAL BORN KILLERS feeling like the film of an angry young filmmaker. I remember reading something along those lines, too, and it's true that every now and then in Hollywood something like this slips through and gets to the masses. Hard to believe. MAGNOLIA is another one that came to mind when you mentioned FIGHT CLUB. Of course, the entire slate of American films in 1999 would qualify: THREE KINGS, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, MAGNOLIA, EYES WIDE SHUT, et al.

    Thanks for the comment, J.D.!

  7. I'm mixed on Stone in general. Some of his films I hate, some I just think are so-so, others are good or great. I like JFK and Nixon, but I think the film that is the best fusion of Stone's nature with his material is actually Talk Radio, though people who have seen the play and Bogosian himself think he ruined the play's point. Having never read or seen the play, I can't comment on that.

  8. Yeah, TALK RADIO has its fans and I like it quite a bit but for me the double bill of JFK and NIXON do it for me. In fact, I've always felt that they are two parts of one epic film - they really go together quite nicely.

  9. Ed and J.D.:

    I'll cover NIXON sometime in the next couple of days as it will be wrapping up my retrospective on Stone (I only wanted to cover his prolific years), and I tend to think of NIXON as Stone's CASINO. What I mean by that is that both Scorsese and Stone made two films each (GOODFELLAS and CASINO/JFK and NIXON)that where the latter felt similar in tone to the former, so a lot of people wrote off the latter as laziness. I actually tend to think that CASINO is not only more entertaining than GOODFELLAS, but a better film. I can't say I like NIXON more than JFK because I love the procedural aspect of JFK more than the biopic aspect of NIXON; however, NIXON is a more polished looking film than JFK (even though both seem to look the same).

    Anyhow...I think when these films were released in the 90's more than a few people dismissed CASINO and NIXON as nothing but retreads of the "better" films that came before them that they were akin to. I tend to think of both CASINO and NIXON as great, more polished, compliments to each respective director's initial ideas found in GOODFELLAS and JFK.

    Does that make sense (I feel as if I'm rambling! Hehe)?

    Oh, and I love TALK RADIO too.

  10. Kevin:

    That's actually a great analogy! I definitely see what you mean and totally agree with you. With NIXON, he took stylistic format of JFK and took it to the next level to tell this epic biopic of the rise and fall of a man, much like Scorese did with CASINO.

  11. I do want to say that you've posted a great review here before I yell at you for calling Any Given Sunday annoying. I think, and I am DEFINITELY in the minority, that Any Given Sunday is Stone's magnum opus. But we're here to talk about Natural Born Killers so I won't go on and on (but I will whore myself and let you read this, if you'd like:

    Anyways, my parents never believed in censorship but NBK was the ONLY movie they forbid me to watch until I was of R rated age and they demonized it so effectively that I actually didn't watch it until I was about 22!

    I 'like' the film because I feel it is important though it isn't necessarily entertaining (it's the type of entertaining Schindler's List is, I guess). The movie makes me feel uncomfortable but that is the point. I love how you pointed out the polarization of the movie and the man who directed it and I also like how you talked about the major shifts in tone for a director (from Wall Street until NBK). Though I personally love Any Given Sunday, it was the last foray into Stone's NBK hyperkinetic style of filmmaking that he had overdone with U-Turn and Nixon (in my humble opinion).

    I'd like to hear your thoughts on the copycat effect this movie is alledged to have (apparently the film inspired numerous Bonny and Clyde like killings): is it proving Stone's point or did his art overstep his philisophy and satire?

  12. Will:

    I'm with ya, buddy! I also like ANY GIVEN SUNDAY as well. It certainly is not a beloved film, esp. among Stone fans but I think it's got a lot going for it. Plus, playing a hard as nails football coach was the role Pacino was born to play!

  13. If possible, see Natural Born Killers, and is filled in its entirety. It adds depth to the story and characters. Everyone should see this film is a classic. Annan Natural Born Killers for the full 10 to 10.

  14. I recommend this for fans of rock, the films I mentioned above by Tarantino (he does not approve, but as a fan of his, I) and all those who are simply curious about it. He will fill in the right direction.

  15. I remember the Natural Born Killers made a big fuss when it was published because the media and conservative families were a scandal to the level of glorified violence in the film.