Natural Born Killers
Produced by Jane Hamsher, Don Murphy, and Clayton Townsend
Directed by Oliver Stone
Story by Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay by David Veloz, Richard Rutowski, and Oliver Stone
Released by Warner Brothers

The release of Oliver Stone’s new film Natural Born Killers was heralded by the sort of publicity barrage that arouses the skepticism of even the most uncritical filmgoer. How can any film, still less one dealing with so exploited and exploitative a theme as serial murder, merit so much apparent hyperbole: “brilliant,” “revolutionary,” “flabbergasting,” “dazzling,” and so on? To my surprise, I could not challenge any of these claims and would go still further. Apart from its aesthetic qualities, Natural Born Killers is a powerful moral document, among the most important American films released in 20 years. It also challenges our critical vocabulary, forcing the use of terms that would never normally occur in the context of a popular film: words like radical, overwhelming, and (quite unquestionably) subversive. Comparisons to Juvenal are not absurd.

The two Natural Born Killers of the title are Micky and Mallory, played respectively by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis. Both characters are the violent products of brutally abusive homes and disturbed childhoods, and they begin a three-month murder spree that claims some 50 lives. So far, this is scarcely new, as a similar story was told in the 1973 classic Badlands and in the more recent Kalifornia, in which Lewis also starred. Very early in the film, however, the daring originality of Stone’s vision becomes apparent in the recounting of Mallory’s abuse through the medium of a situation-corned)’ portraying Rodney Dangerfield as the incestuous father, to the accompaniment of a peculiarly inane laugh track. This introduces the central theme of the film, the extent to which vulgar popular culture has saturated and polluted American life, at once shaping the deeds of the violent and perverted and preventing the public from viewing these acts as anything other than entertaining pabulum. It is highly desirable to view this film in a crowded theater, where members of the audience join in the utterly inappropriate laughter of the imaginary sketch, presumably because this response has been so thoroughly conditioned and internalized.

The ensuing murder spree is recounted through the eyes of the mass media, who lionize Micky and Mallory, the charming “M&M killers,” making them into folk heroes for adoring fans across the world. Stone’s central vision of media irresponsibility produces some superb images, like the crowd greeting the captured pair with placards reading “Murder me, Micky!” or the talking-heads shots of young aficionados comparing the current superstars with past demigods. Only Manson, it seems, had anything approaching the same charisma, but Micky and Mallory are by common consent “way cooler.” The satire on public reactions to villainy is constructed with the subtlety of a chain saw, but even here there are some touches from a finer-honed scalpel. After their panegyrics on the monster pair, the fans do observe in passing that of course mass murder is morally objectionable; but if it need be done, let it be with the panache and romanticism of “M&M.”

The media serving swill to the weak-brained and morally degenerate multitude are personified by a reptilian Australian expose merchant played by Robert Downey, Jr., who hopes to achieve the greatest true-crime coup in television history by presenting a live interview with Micky during the Super Bowl. He hopes that this will surpass his earlier shows with Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and even Charles Manson (though as Micky concedes, it’s tough to go against the king). But his plans are derailed by the one small fact that actions have consequences, even, remarkably enough, the actions of television journalists who believe they exist in an empyrean far above the simplistic demands of quotidian morality. Micky succeeds in stating the appeal of murder and his natural calling to be a killer well enough to delight the journalist, but also sufficiently to incite the inmates of the prison where the conversation is filmed. They react by beginning a riot closely modeled on the appalling carnage that claimed at least 40 lives in the Santa Fe prison in 1980, an incident that starkly proved the horrendous, sadistic violence of which human beings are capable once they free themselves of both moral restraints and legal sanctions. Once the fictional riot begins, the surging blood-lust claims the mind of even the journalist, who realizes and wallows in the true aesthetic beauty of random murder. Like the police detective, the ostensible agent of public morality, he too is a budding serial killer.

Stone is suggesting, all too plausibly, that recent media ventures in glorifying “true crime” have come perilously close to awakening the homicidal urges that they are affecting to condemn. A harrowing sequence consists of a rogues’ gallery of recent media superstars from real life: the Menendez brothers, O.J. Simpson, Tonya Harding, and Lorena Bobbitt. It’s all entertainment, isn’t it? Well no, it isn’t, and Stone is urging a consideration of the moral consequences of treating real-life villainy and suffering as ratings-fodder. We might recall the insouciant remark of the Paris journalist of the 1890’s who praised the romantic bravado of a terrorist outrage by anarchists: “What do the victims matter if it is a fine gesture?” Within a year, the journalist himself had been mutilated in another “gesture,” in which terrorists assaulted a cafe filled with innocent civilians. It would be grimly appropriate if some form of condign punishment could befall certain contemporary writers, investigative journalists, and broadcasting executives, though of course it won’t. All we can hope for is that a handful will see Natural Born Killers and recognize the forces they are unleashing before it is altogether too late.

The performances in the film range from thoroughly adequate to quite superb, but the casting of Woody Harrelson as a psychopathic killer and rapist deserves special note. Harrelson is best known as the lovable dolt “Woody” in television’s long-running Cheers, so of course there is a delicious element of playing against type. Can the “Woody” we know really say that you should never murder anyone on your wedding day? However, the full complexity of the role may escape those unfamiliar with the history of the actor’s real-life father Charlie Harrelson, an imprisoned professional assassin whose victims included a federal judge and who has spent a decade fending off repeated allegations of involvement in the Kennedy assassination. One can only imagine the personal courage that permitted Woody Harrelson to undertake a role that came so close to his family’s tragedy; but it would not be out of keeping with the raw nerve that permeates the whole work.

Natural Born Killers is shocking, grotesquely violent, and brutally excessive. It is also a definitive answer for anyone who dares to ask whether the modern cinema can produce a work of artistic genius.