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Natural Born Killers

(1994) *** 1/2 R
119 min. Warner Bros. Pictures International. Director: Oliver Stone. Cast: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore.

/content/films/3117/1.jpgProfane, hallucinogenic, and wickedly satirical, Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers mainlined a message from hell (a.k.a. modern America, as seen by Stone) into mall theatres and multiplexes. The tale of mass murderers in a land of mass media caused a sensation that echoed years after its release. Let me refresh your memory: its neighbors were the likes of Maverick, The Flintstones, Beverly Hills Cop III and City Slickers 2. It's hard to imagine anyone but Stone having the balls to make Natural Born Killers then or now—at least not outside the torture-porn horror genre. But there it is for posterity: a gory, gonzo Ralph Steadman cartoon come to life.

As such, this is not a movie for everyone, despite its uber-cool appropriation—and improvement, no doubt—of a Quentin Tarantino script (Tarantino wound up with story credit; screenplay credit went to David Veloz, Richard Rutowski, & Oliver Stone). After a transparently Tarantinoid diner riff on key lime pie, we're firmly in Stone's hands. Reteaming with Oscar-winning JFK cinematographer Robert Richardson, Stone shoots Killers in 35mm, 16mm, 8mm, and video, cutting amongst them like a Super Bowl director. Indeed it all culminates in a post-Super Bowl orgy of violence and media exploitation. The film emerged from the climate of the Menendez trial, Tonya Harding case, O.J. trial, and Rodney King debacle. And the Bush-decreed moratorium on war images aside, if it bleeds, it still leads in the American media.

Juliette Lewis plays Mallory Wilson, the angry, fatalistic daughter of a physically and sexually abusive father (Rodney Dangerfield, freshly fearsome). Stone stages the horrors of her upbringing as more raw meat processed for sale by the media: her backstory becomes the sitcom "I Love Mallory," complete with laugh track and selectively bleeped profanity (hilariously, Stone laughs in the face of censorship by bleeping non-swear words like "scum," while bleeping only half of the  "fuck"s). Stone's son Sean plays Mallory's mother, and sitcom vet Edie McClurg plays their mother. When meat delivery man Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson) comes by the house, he swiftly picks up Mallory. The inevitable clash with Mallory's father ends in violence and the unconvincing promise from Mallory to her brother "You're free now, Kevin."

Mickey is also the product of a damaging childhood, and Stone makes no secret of seeing the story as a variation on Frankenstein. Modern times may make a less poetic and stronger strain of monster, but Stone rightly dismisses evil as a cold comfort that sweeps under the rug the actual causes of violent crime: physical and substance abuse, untreated mental disorders, socio-economic betrayal, and so on. The people who turn on society, Stone implies, are the people ruined by it. Of course, Mickey and Mallory are terrifying and monstrous in their behavior, but Stone refuses to dehumanize them, even in the context of a psycho-picaresque.

The young lovers hit the road and marry themselves ("By the power vested in me as God of my world, I now pronounce us man and wife"), but despite their intense bond, they're doomed to reenact the hurts of their parents. Nothing in the film is scarier than the notion that Mickey and Mallory might procreate, a promise of more generational violence. A key sequence finds the pair taking a detour into the hut of a Navajo man (Russell Means) who lost his Marine son—another sign of institutional American bloodshed. Here, Stone spins a variation on the scorpion and the frog story famously re-told by Welles in Confidential Report. In a sideways shot at consumerism and American attitudes towards drugs, shroom trips and vision quests lead into a scene set at Drug Zone, a dysfunctional pharmaceutical supermarket.

The final destination of the film is that Super Bowl Sunday, which corresponds not only with more Mickey and Mallory mayhem but with Stone's central theme of American bloodlust as purveyed by the media and lapped up by amoral idiots ("Mickey and Mallory are the best thing to happen to mass murder since Manson"). In one of his most vital performances before his period of personal flameout, Robert Downey Jr. plays a Morton Downey Jr. type: Wayne Gale, the Australian-accented host of infotainment nightmare "American Maniacs." Hopped up on a heady mix of drugs, infidelity, and adrenalized blood fever, Gale can't be trusted. At one point, Mickey takes a gun out of his hands and replaces it with a camera. "Here, shoot with this." The point is made pithily: the media is killing us softly.

The scene takes place in a hell-on-earth prison before a scheduled, state-sanctioned execution—one would have to be asleep to miss the satire. Here we get a hilarious and  amazing Tommy Lee Jones performance as a whorish warden with a rip-curl hairdo. The prison is also one of Tom Sizemore's playgrounds in the role of a corrupt detective by the name of Jack Scagnetti (this monster has a story, too: his mom was shot by Charles Whitman). Everyone's on the take, including a sellout psychiatrist interviewed by Gale (Steven Wright, in a perfect cameo). As for Stone's violence, it depicts horrors with a certain sadistic glee, but given the film's purposely exaggerated, exhilarating stylization lacks the illusion of reality that would make Stone glaringly hypocritical. (This point would be even more obvious had the MPAA not effectively censored over-the-top shots of a head on a pike and a view through a shotgun wound.)

Stone gives it all he's got, with stuttered editing, floating dutch angles, front projections of director's commentary ("too much t.v." on the lovers) and rear projections of media (from Leave it to Beaver to self-indicting clips showing the Stone-penned violence of Midnight Express and Scarface). As a kind of mash-up of Wild at Heart, Network, and The Honeymoon Killers, Natural Born Killers is unavoidably lurid and a bit much to take. But it's also a work of cinematic art putting forward a strong point of view that we're already living in the apocalypse, or at least its border town.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround

Street date: 6/17/2008

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Natural Born Killers assaults Blu-Ray with style in a Blu-Ray packaged book-style with 46 pages including an Introduction, Bios, Trivia, Director's Notes, and the essay "America's Tradition of Violence." The high-definition experience presents this unique film at its best advantage, with the 35mm footage looking as vivid as we've come to expect and the intentionally grubbier footage looking excatly as it should. The TrueHD soundtrack likewise fires up Stone's whacked-out soundscape, though there's an annoying omission just before the credits, where a Nine Inch Nails cue has been lost (flip over to the French soundtrack to hear it).

Otherwise, the Blu-Ray presents the original theatrical release intact (a "Director's Cut" available on DVD includes a couple of minutes trimmed to satisfy the MPAA). Unfortunately, this edition also loses from the previous DVD edition the extensive documentary “Chaos Rising: The Storm Around Natural Born Killers.” That's a terrible loss, but we get quite a bit all the same.

First up is a feature-length commentary by Stone, an essential listen as one of America's top directors covers all the bases of the film, its production, and its controversies. One of Stone's patented "Charlie Rose Interview" tussles (11:38) is included, with Stone showing a great deal of patience and wit in turning Rose's questions back on him. The Theatrical Trailer (1:47) is here, as are several interesting Deleted Scenes with introductions by Stone (24:08 with "Play All" option): "The Desert" (3:21), "The Courtroom" (9:52), "The Drive-In" (3:21), "Steven Wright" (2:14), "The Hun Brothers" (3:20), and "Denis Leary" (1:59). If you haven't yet added this quintessential Oliver Stone film to your collection, now's a good time, with a Blu-Ray upgrade that handily bests any previous transfer.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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