Be afraid. Be very afraid. Oliver Stone has gone over the edge and he wants to take you with him. Stone's new film Natural Born Killers is a splatterfest with a heart as black as gunpowder. Think Bonnie and Clyde with assault weapons.
Remember that scene in Brian De Palma's Scarface in which Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is handcuffed to a shower rod while a sadistic drug dealer with a chain saw makes gazpacho out of Montana's cousin? Natural Born Killers is like that -- for the whole movie. Intense? Nah. I haven't left a movie theater feeling this frazzled since I snuck in to see Peckinpah's Straw Dogs as a teenager. Stone includes the Scarface clip in this multimedia assault, both to invoke the storm of controversy that movie's violence incited and to parallel it with NBK's apocalyptic vision. Scarface seems almost quaint by comparison. The quantum leap in savagery is particularly telling in light of the fact that Stone wrote the screenplay for De Palma's film. It's been a long decade, Stone seems to be saying. The stakes have risen.
Natural Born Killers is supposed to be satire, mind you. At least that's Stone's official story. "What I set out to do was satirize the painful idea that crime has gotten so crazy, so far out of hand, so numbing and so desensitizing that in this movie's Beavis and Butt-head 1990s American crimescape, the subject approaches the comedic, as does the media which so avariciously covers it," says the director in the film's promotional literature.
Maybe I'm a tad cynical (it dates back to the day my parents came clean on the whole Santa Claus scam), but I have a hard time swallowing the cinematic-violence-as-satire-of-real-violence line. I'm not convinced the possibility of raking in megabuckets of somalians with the bloodiest major-studio release in recent memory wasn't the real point. Notoriety never has hurt a film's chances for box-office success, and neither Stone nor anyone connected with this film's publicity has shied away from characterizing the work as steeped in slaughter and knee-deep in gore.
Particularly galling is Stone's disparagement of the media; he views tabloid TV as a greater evil than remorseless murder. No one who's seen even one installment of Cops, America's Most Wanted, or Hard Copy (not to mention your average Channel 7 news broadcast) would deny our willingness to sensationalize bloodshed, havoc, and general lurid behavior. It's common knowledge. But for a major motion picture director to glorify and glamorize a pair of fictional sociopaths and in the course of the same film take potshots at the news media for telling their story reeks of hypocrisy.
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Natural Born Killers is not A Clockwork Orange. Stone is an inspired filmmaker, and in terms of sheer visceral appeal and shock value his film leaves Kubrick's in the dust. Never has such a collage of overlapping filmmaking techniques achieved such a state of sensory overload within the framework of a relatively linear narrative. Stone pulls out all the stops, interspersing snippets from The Wild Bunch, Midnight Express, Leave It to Beaver, and Frankenstein with 75 musical selections of Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor's choosing, grainy black-and-white footage, videotape shot from hand-held cameras, rear-screen projection, and even cartoons. It's a hallucinatory tour de force. You not only see Tony Montana as his cousin's blood splashes all over his face and the chain saw roars in his ear, you feel like him.
But Kubrick's 1971 film was visionary and futuristic, his satiric intent clear. Stone's film is torn from today's headlines and romanticizes the very violence he purports to pillory. Mickey and Mallory, the killers of the title, are cool and media-savvy. Sexy. Hip. With apologies to Fleetwood Mac, they make killing fun. Their story is a riff on the faithful old Charlie Starkweather-Caril Fugate story: young lovers, abusive parents, patricide, killing spree. To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska," they hit the road and kill everything in their path. Stone cribs liberally from Badlands, Kalifornia, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and supplements the narrative with footage of Tonya Harding, the trials of the Menendez brothers, and, of course, O.J. It's as if Stone is screaming, "Hey America, this stuff is really happening! Let's all join the party!" Where's the satire in that?
The performances are uniformly excellent and appropriately over-the-top. Juliette Lewis is her usual dippy self, only her Mallory has a serious mean streak. Lewis's characters are all the same; they have the worst luck with men. All her boyfriends are sociopaths, from Cape Fear's vengeful ex-con Max Cady to Kalifornia's serial-killing Early Grace. Even the cop she fell for in Romeo Is Bleeding was bad news.
There's no faulting Natural Born Killers for sheer audacious craftsmanship. It's a powerful movie that bucks like a .44 magnum. The acting is topnotch, the camerawork is dizzying, the direction is overwhelming, and the editing (hundreds, if not thousands, of quick cuts layered on top of each other) is nothing short of miraculous. It leaves you reeling. But Stone's sanctimony is as grating as his claims of satire are transparent. People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, Oliver.