It’s a scary concept – Oliver Stone with a sense of humor. Not that the master of earnest excess hasn’t made his share of howlers – The Doors might well be the best comedy of 1991. But Natural Born Killers is the first film in which Stone has tried to be deliberately funny (okay, Talk Radio, maybe, but the laughs were all supplied by Eric Bogosian).
Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers
How’s this for starters: Mickey (Woody Harrelson, a long way from Cheers) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis, who gets to throw her 97-pound bulk into one of the meanest left jabs in movie history) dispatch a café full of rednecks with a ruthless glee reminiscent of an identical scene in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark. They leap into their convertible and drive off onto a rear-projected phantasmagoria of American landscapes and pop-cultural icons. The car and its giddy occupants fly through a kaleidoscope of fireworks, nature films, shopping malls, deserts, and old TV shows. This can’t be the beginning of an Oliver Stone movie – it’s the beginning of Naked Gun.
With Natural Born Killers, Stone seems to have recognized that his trademark hyperbole is actually comic genius, that excess in the defense of inanity is strictly for laughs. He’s taken one of the basic action-movie premises – boy meets girl, boy and girl amass an arsenal, jump in car, and kill people – and applied to it the razzle-dazzle technique that he used to construct an insanely complex paranoid conspiracy in JFK. This time, he really goes crazy, employing black and white footage, videotape, slow-motion, computer opticals, crazy camera angles, a seething soundtrack, and breakneck editing that makes JFK look like Bresson. Like Ulysses, it’s a visual and aural palimpsest woven of the detritus of a deranged and bankrupt culture. It’s a film with layers – not of meaning so much as of meaninglessness.
Mickey and Mallory are serial mass murderers: they repeatedly kill large groups of people. The origins of their hobby are made clear in one of Stone’s many lapses into abysmal taste. In a segment titled “I Love Mallory,” he depicts his heroine’s family background as a parody of Married with Children. Essentially it’s a Badlands sit-com, with Rodney Dangerfield as her gross, sexually abusive father and Mickey, a meat delivery boy, as her liberator. Armed with a tire iron, an aquarium, and a can of lighter fluid the couple leave Mallory’s home a bloody inferno and pledge themselves to each other and to killing everyone else.
So far it’s Forty Funerals and a Wedding, or a cartoon version of the already cartoonish True Romance (which was scripted by Quentin Tarantino, who wrote the original draft of this film), but there’s one flaw in this chaos, and it’s a serious one. Stone insists that this movie makes a point. If the point had been that killing is good for you, it might at least have been honest. Instead, Stone beats on the hackneyed hobby-horse, the media – here represented by Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr., sporting a beard and a Robin Leach accent), host of American Maniacs, a Hard Copy clone that features profiles of killers. Gale’s ratings soar along with Mickey and Mallory’s body count, and the pair are cheered by legions of fans. To augment their image they always leave behind a single witness.