Thursday 28 March 2013

Movie Review: Natural Born Killers (1994)

An orgy of violence intended as a condemnation of society's glorification of criminals and their crimes, Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers is a brave effort that unfortunately falls short. Despite an eye-dazzling style, the script deteriorates just when the message becomes important, the film losing its nerve and diving deeper into blood bath territory.

Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are on a murderous crime spree in rural New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. Both abused as children, they fell in love as soon as they set eyes on each other, and Mickey self-administered their marriage after killing Mallory's abusive father (Rodney Dangerfield) and submissive mother. Now running wild and killing for fun, their victims include a woman they held hostage to watch them have sex, a gas station attendant seduced by Mallory, and patrons at an isolated roadhouse. As the murder count clicks up to 52, television show host Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.) leads the media in glamorizing the couple and they garner a cult following while on the run.

The pair get lost in the desert and are rescued by a mystical Navajo Indian (Russell Means) who recognizes a demon within Mickey. For the first time the murderers feel some remorse, and detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), himself prone to extreme violence, catches up with them. Held in a maximum security prison where slimy Warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) is in charge, Mickey and Mallory are targeted in a duplicitous plan to further the careers of McClusky, Scagnetti and Gale.

Co-written by Stone from an original story by Quentin Tarantino, Natural Born Killers is constructed in a brash and vibrant style, filmed with animated quick edits, lighting stunts, crazy camera angles and black and white shots, often juxtaposed within seconds. Stone's intent is to diffuse the violence with an outlandishly cartoonish ethic, and this part of the film works. Mickey and Mallory inflict a lot of damage, but it's presented at the edge of tongue-in-cheek, Stone daring his audience to be shocked when kids are allowed to watch the carnage of Tom and Jerry as harmless entertainment. The soundtrack uses mini-clips from a large selection of bellicose rock tracks to fuel the murderous onslaught.

The intended focus is therefore not the violence but the public reaction to it, and Natural Born Killers races to show the public falling in love with the romanticism of two wild killers on the loose, and the media machine milking the criminals for all the ratings that they are worth. But Stone can't escape being part of the culture that he is criticizing, since Natural Born Killers presents Mickey and Mallory as the only central characters worth caring about.

Their horrific backgrounds and upbringing are sympathetically presented to justify their antisocial behaviour, and all the secondary characters other than Navajo man are much less appealing. With attractive, vivacious performances from Harrelson and Lewis, the criminals are presented in the best possible light, amplifying all the reasons for cultural obsession with outcasts who leave a mark. Jones, Downey Jr. and Sizemore do their jobs in portraying establishment and media characters as two-faced and corrupt, making it easy to cheer-on Mickey and Mallory as they rage against the machine.

Natural Born Killers ultimately has nowhere to go, and so Stone catapults the climax into outright hysteria. Detective Scagnetti clumsily attempts to seduce Mallory, reporter Wayne Gale loses his grip on reality and gets possessed by the very same violence he pretends to be outraged about, inmates turn into blood-thirsty maniacs, and an entire prison is drenched in blood. The mayhem drowns out any opportunity to make a point, and the killers remain icons of a society that meekly settles for the easiest of grotesque entertainment fixes.

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