There is a rich cinematic history of psychos in love, but few have made it on to a list of most controversial movies of all time. In 1994, Oliver Stone, working from a heavily rewritten Quentin Tarantino screenplay, unleashed a Bonnie and Clyde on acid called Natural Born Killers. The film would go on to be slapped with a NC-17 by the MPAA, forcing Stone to cut four and a half minutes, but its legacy will forever be tied to copycat killers and for allegedly being an inspiration for the two Columbine High School murderers in 1999.
Beyond the external controversies though, Natural Born Killers is, in my opinion, Oliver Stone’s strongest film. Despite all the academy award nominations and/or wins for Nixon (1995), Platoon (1986), Midnight Express (1978), Salvador (1986), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) I simply never connected with Stone’s films. I always found him dry, maybe a bit pompous, but Natural Born Killers was the most vibrant and electric thing he made since writing Scarface (1983) for Brian De Palma.
Tarantino can be stricken from the conversation right from the get go–his screenplay was heavily reworked to the point he only received credit for the story. Furthermore, Tarantino hates the film. So true credit lies with Stone, writer David Veloz, and associate producer Richard Rutowski. Principal photography took just shy of two months, but Stone spent eleven months molding the film in the editing bay. The result is a collage of sounds and images, flashing by with the speed of a music video (not so different from Rob Zombie’s 2003 debut film, House of 1000 Corpses, or any of his subsequent music videos).
Natural Born Killers owes a great debt to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and perhaps to a lesser extent Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972). Like Bonnie and Clyde, NBK starts with an odd loner showing up to the home of an unhappy girl and essentially sweeping her off her feet, before they plunge into a world of crime, or in the case of NBK’s Mickey and Mallory, mass murder.
Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis were cast as the star-crossed lovers. Lewis seemed like a natural pick for the role. Other than starting on the dramedy series The Wonder Years (1988-93) and playing Audrey Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), Lewis is better known for choosing darker roles and/or darker films, like Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear (1991), or Peter Medak’s Romeo is Bleeding (1993). She has a natural, edgy, rock star feel in whatever she does. Harrelson on the other hand, was probably still best remembered as the goofy, good-hearted bartender on NBC’s Cheers. He had broken into film two years earlier, starring in White Men Can’t Jump (1992), opposite Wesley Snipes, but NBK marked the turning point where Harrelson proved he could swing from comedy to drama to action hero, fairly easily, often retaining his “aw-shucks” boyishness, even decades later, as in his leading role in season one of HBO’s True Detective (2014). But in 1994, the darkness that Stone pulled out of Harrelson and Lewis was shocking.
Harrelson and Lewis had a great chemistry though, really holding the picture together and turning in performances worthy of Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway or Sissy Spacek/Martin Sheen. In my opinion, it’s the believability they bring to Mickey and Mallory that ultimately saves the movie. Let me explain; there’s a legend about Truman Capote meeting Jack Kerouac about publishing On The Road. The story goes that Capote said to Kerouac, “This isn’t writing. This is typewriting.” Similarly, with something like 3000 cuts in NBK, Stone’s fingerprints are all over every shot. It’s nearly impossible to get lost in the film, because it’s constantly screaming at you that it’s a movie, with the mix of film grains and styles and lenses and cut, cut, cut. Stone’s direction is brash and crass, also cool and innovative, dancing back and forth between studio gloss and grind house grime. If not for Harrelson and Lewis arriving with their A game and being so fun to watch, we would be saying ‘this isn’t film making, this is film editing.’
Natural Born Killers has a lot going on outside of Mickey and Mallory’s relationship though. At the time, the rise of twenty-four hour news cycle was really starting to grip America, from the Long Island Lolita, to the Rodney King police beating and the ensuing LA riots, the OJ Simpson murder trial, the destruction of the Branch Davidians compound… Sensationalistic news was king, never mind the endless talk shows–Geraldo, Jerry Springer, Sally Jessy Raphael… The TV was constantly selling you hard on fear and paranoia. Were satanic cults murdering children in YOUR neighborhood? Did Judas Priest make YOUR son commit suicide? NBK bought into that hard. Reveled in it, in fact. The result was akin to channel surfing on cable, with your eyes screwed open, A Clockwork Orange style-sex, blood, crime, disease, rape, war, violence, fire, rinse, and repeat. The movie really was an early 90s Cops-watching, CNN-obsessed, Geraldo-on-meth wet dream. And in the end, who was the sole witness to the end of Mickey and Mallory’s reign of terror? A lone, unmanned news camera, of course.
I was in a theater, in Knoxville, TN, opening night, and it was a packed house. I remember a collective sigh of relief when the closing credits finally rolled and a lot of stunned people looking around, like “Did you see that?” The couple beside me stood up immediately, and the boyfriend declared loudly, “That sucked!” Which garnered several sympathetic head nods. I went to the showing alone and really felt quite alone in the film’s closing moments, because as a horror fan, I found the film to be a fun, if at times uncomfortable, roller coaster ride, but I was among a crowd of normies, probably Cheers fans, who pushed back in their seats, hard, especially during the prison riot, when the soundtrack to Wizard of Oz kicked in, giving a surreal, cackling vibe to the carnage.
Natural Born Killers stands as a testament to 90s filmmaking and had an obvious influence on films like The Doom Generation (1995) and Love and a 45 (1995). I feel like even David Lynch may have been slightly touched by its influence on Lost Highway (1997), particularly in choosing Trent Reznor for the soundtrack (Reznor is responsible for NBK’s soundtrack as well), though Lost Highway finds strength in the quieter, still moments and never screams at you or hits you over the head with metaphors. Oliver Stone didn’t immediately abandon this film making style. His neo-noir follow up, U Turn (1997), starring Sean Penn and Jennifer Lopez felt like Stone shaking NBK out of his system, before returning to more conventional film making. In comparison, U Turn is flat and forgettable, leaving Natural Born Killers a singular piece of tour de force film making for an otherwise vanilla director.