I didn’t know anything about Natural Born Killers prior to watching it but saw that an angry looking Woody Harrelson was on the blu-ray cover and that was enough to sell it to me. During the frenzied pre credit sequence I thought to myself that it looked like the most Tarantino-esque film I’d ever seen. I didn’t realise at the time of course that the film was actually loosely based on a script written by Quentin Tarantino and that he received a ‘story by’ credit. The script though, was written by director Oliver Stone, Dale Veloz and Richard Rutowski and is set around a manic killing spree. Mickey Knox (Harrelson) and his wife Mallory (Juliette Lewis) travel around the South Western United States, randomly killing seemingly for the pleasure it brings. Both central characters suffered traumatic childhoods but enjoy the fame and notoriety that their actions bring.
The film is spliced together in a fairly linear structure but has the overarching look of a collage. A multitude of camera angles, effects and styles are used and the estimated 3,000 cuts necessary to piece everything together took around eleven months to edit. Camera angles and shooting styles will change from second to second in what feels like a psychedelic whirlwind. The effect is that Stone creates a movie that seems to surround you on all sides rather than emanate from the TV screen and it keeps you both off balance and highly entertained throughout.
Though nearly twenty years old, the themes raised by Natural Born Killers couldn’t be more pertinent today. The media circus which follows the crimes, lead principally by Robert Downey Jr’s Australian TV personality Wayne Gale mirrors what we see on TV every day. If anything the film’s themes strike more of a chord twenty years on with the advent of rolling 24 hour news channels and social media. Our fascination with the macabre as well as the idea of the celebrity leads millions of us to gawp blindly at our television sets for hours on end, watching the latest high speed chase, murder hunt or reality TV show. Just yesterday for instance I myself was glued to the screen for close to an hour, looking on at helicopter footage of an East London street covered in blood while ‘eyewitness’ testimony sprouted across the country from people who may or may not have seen anything. The mass hysteria and outpouring of xenophobia that followed was deeply upsetting but the media’s reaction reminded me very much of this film. Stone uses popular images from the time, such as those from the O.J Simpson trial, to intersect his own visuals and create an off kilter film which also features occasional advertisements and parodies various TV formats.
The film is a visual onslaught which never ceases to throw unexpected images at the viewer. In the space of twenty seconds you could go from a sitcom set up to a noir inspired close up to an 8mm shot with subtle frames of blood splattered characters and Coca-Cola polar bears thrown in to the mix. I was worried that I would find the technique grating after a while but fortunately I remained transfixed, much like those of us which the film is satirically mocking. The sheer array of visual and technical styles is impressive enough but the adept way they are used and timing of each cinematic method feels spot on. Considering there are around 3,000 cuts in the movie I couldn’t think of one style or image which felt out of place. I loved every minute of the visuals and feel as though I need to watch the movie again in an attempt to try and take them all in.
While the cinematography remains taught and frenetic all the way through, the story comes in two distinct burst of violent energy. The three act structure works against the two distinct halves in terms of violence and there is a lull early in the third act in which there is little or no violence. The gore itself is fairly graphic though tame by modern torture porn standards and it is more how it happens and to who, rather than the images themselves. The violence has a sort of comic book/cartoon quality to it, more reminiscent of Tarantino than Scorsese. Overall I found the story interesting, engaging and occasionally darkly comic and was excited to get to the end and see how it unravelled. I thought that the side characters added a lot to the film and helped to give the terrific principle characters some breathing space.
There are several brilliant acting performances but they are spearheaded by the leads Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis. Harrelson is superb in the lead role, his crazed eyes and super cool demeanour perfectly suiting the part of a charismatic and dangerous killer. He shares terrific chemistry with Lewis and gets his tongue around some juicy lines with effortless ease. He sells the role brilliantly. Juliette Lewis is slightly more enigmatic than her co-star, changing her appearance and personality several times. She presents a more schizophrenic image with her portrayal but her slight frame and good looks work in her favour when she unexpectedly starts hacking at limbs or spraying bullets. Robert Downey Jr is very good as the investigative reporter and gets better and better towards the climax while Tommy Lee Jones is magnificent as the Prison Warden. He sometimes gives the impression that he should be in a Terry Gilliam film but his performance works well in the circus like ending. Rodney Dangerfield has a short but memorable cameo.
Overall I was enamoured with Oliver Stone’s film. He shoots it without fear of playing to convention and the altering style helps to ease the transition from love story to thriller to a climax which feels like and is shot in the style of a war film. The leads are terrific but special praise must go to Cinematographer Robert Richardson and Editor Brian Berdan who help Stone to form a controversial but highly entertaining film that remains in the memory because of the magnificent way in which it is put together.
- A total of 18 different film formats were used to create the finished movie.
- Quentin Tarantino was paid $10,000 for his script though the final draft bears little resemblance to his original script.
- Coca-Cola approved the use of their commercials in the film without really knowing what it was about. The company was said to be furious when they finally saw it.
- Many of the prison extras were real prisoners and the large bald man seen attacking another prisoner was in jail for beating his wife and children to death.