Slashers & Serial Killers In Review : Natural Born Killers (1994)
Only Love Can Kill The Demon
Kit Power on Natural Born Killers
SPOILER ALERT! I will assume you’ve seen the film, and talk accordingly. If this is not the case and you don’t want to be spoiled, go, now, and watch this damn movie. You should, anyway, because it’s awesome.
In 1994, Oliver Stone was right in the middle of his imperial phase, as a filmmaker. Following the Oscar success of Platoon in 1987 (where it unfairly beat RoboCop, which admittedly hadn’t actually been nominated, but still, UNFAIR I say!), he went on to make Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, and The Doors, among others – any of which could support at least a slim volume worth of essay material in their own right (albeit not, probably, in a series about slashers and serial killers).
In 1991, he made his Godfather Pt. 1 with the sublime paranoid conspiracy thriller JFK, and in 1995 he book-ended it with his …Pt. 2 in the form of Nixon. These movies are both stunning achievements, from a filmmaker at the height of his considerable powers and arrogance – swaggering, sprawling, epic fever dreams interrogating the American way of life (I’ve podcasted with some friends about both these movies – see here <http://pexlives.libsyn.com/shabcast-24b-through-the-looking-glass-without-a-paddle> and here <http://pexlives.libsyn.com/shabcast-24a-the-bay-of-pigs-was-his-rosebud> for more of my thoughts).
And sandwiched in between these two towering accomplishments, in 1994, he gave the world Natural Born Killers.
The story is simple enough – Mickey and Mallory Knox are two serial killers (‘technically mass murderers’, I can hear Woody Harrelson correct me in that menacing southern drawl) who are slaughtering their way across the country in a convertible, kitted out with a full arsenal of guns (‘liberated’ from a gun shop, as we learn via an in-movie documentary about the couple). In the process of their spree, they become media sensations, in part because of a lurid documentary series ‘American Maniacs’, hosted by the awesomely detestable Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr., in hands down my favourite of his film performances). After gunning down 52 people, including several police officers, the pair are, improbably, taken alive (but white privilege is a myth, lol) tried, and jailed.
That’s the first half of the movie. The second half takes place a year later, and revolves around a plan by the prison warder (played with gleeful lunatic energy by Tommy Lee Jones) and super cop (and killer) Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) to have the couple executed during their transfer to a mental health facility – while at the same time, a live TV interview with Mickey is being scheduled for broadcast directly after the Superbowl. Mickey’s interview causes a massive riot, during which he and Mallory reunite and escape, and they live happily ever after in an RV with kids.
That is, however, the only simple thing about Natural Born Killers. Because this movie is actually batshit insane, in many important and brilliant ways
Technical information first: The film took only 44 days to shoot, but 11 months to edit. The final movie contains over 3,000 cuts – a typical movie, for reference, contains 600 – 700 over a similar running time. The movie also employs over a dozen different film stocks, as well as cell animation and rear projection – it’s not unusual for a major motion picture to use only one film stock throughout (though this is of less relevance in the digital era, where digital film can be manipulated to look like, well, anything). Similarly, the soundtrack, produced by NiN creative force Trent Reznor, is a collage of sounds and songs, often mashing two or three tunes together to create a discordant, distorted effect.
The combined impact of all this is that the movie has a delirious, deranged energy to it; an exhausting assault on the eyes and ears that is as disconcerting and alienating as it is compulsive, mesmerising.The film does not so much grab your attention as place a razor sharp hunting knife to your windpipe and scream in your face, daring you to look away.
That terrifying, manic energy is similarly in evidence in the performances. Woody Harrelson is also on career-best form here, as the charismatic, explosively violent Mickey Knox. He sure looks the part – wild scraggly hair, and the piercing stare over the rims of his Lennon mirrored shades – and he moves with an animal grace that oozes menace.
Juliette Lewis is even better, for my money – her portrayal of Mallory Knox, a teenager suffering sustained sexual abuse from her father and willful ignorance from her mother, whose knight in shining armour rescues her by showing her the power of her own capacity for violence, is note perfect. Mallory is obviously a deeply damaged human being, but Lewis resists the easy caricatures of mental illness or abuse that Hollywood tends to prefer, showing us instead a woman growing into the violent persona she’s created with Mickey’s help. Mallory is fierce, independently minded, and has sworn a solemn vow to take no shit from anyone again, ever. Lewis allows us to see the damaged child underneath from time to time (as does Stone, who occasionally intercuts a scene featuring Mallory with a black and white flashback of her father’s abuse) but she also doesn’t shy away from showing Mallory’s love affair with her violent tendencies, her savage glee in beating and killing others.
It all comes together in the opening scene of the movie, where the couple grab breakfast in a diner, before Mallory instigates a fight that leads to everyone being killed (actually, they spare one – it’s part of their M.O.). Mallory’s performance, as she shifts from fake-flirting with a gross redneck to beating the shit out of him is matched by a soundtrack shift from some rocking country tune to L7’s Shitlist. That, in turn, is interrupted with a brief burst of classical music, as Mickey hurls a gigantic knife at the back of a fleeing customer, and the film changes to a black and white as the blade spins end to end, before snapping back to colour as the shot changes, the victim collapses, and L7 cuts back in with screaming intensity.
It’s utterly breathtaking, exhilarating, and the movie continues at this pedal-to-the-metal pace throughout. Even quieter moments, like Mickey and Mallory’s wedding ceremony, features black and white, slow motion, and animation sequences, as well as a soundtrack collage that is similarly complex.
The structure of the movie is similarly interesting. It breaks neatly into two acts rather than three – the first hour being taken up with the killing spree, and hour two with the prison interview, riot, and escape. The American Maniacs ‘documentary’ starts to feed into the first half of the movie, setting up Wayne Gayle and also the more general sense that the couple have become, in rating terms, hot property – that their killing spree has become commodified by the ravenous appetites of the 24 hour news cycle. Gayle personifies this; he’s a total shitweasel, manuplutive, shallow, hopelessly vain, in contempt of his audience; hectoring, bullying, or grossly sycophantic, depending on what he thinks will work, and utterly taken in by his own bullshit. It’d be easy to take a cheap shot as Downey Jr., with that setup, but I actually rate the man as an actor a great deal – and even if I didn’t, I’d still have to concede he is magnificent in this role. He basically takes over the film for 10 – 15 minutes, while the couple are locked up and he wheedles his way into the good graces of the prison governor (as previously mentioned, an equally glorious Tommy Lee Jones), all to secure his live interview with Mickey to follow the Superbowl game.
The interview itself pulls out all the stops from the actors, writers, and of course the directing and editing. There’s moments that are purely surreal, such as when slow mo footage from Day of the Lepus is intercut with Mickey’s rambling monologue about nature and violence. Harrelson is totally mesmerising here, his freshly shaved head further enhancing his stature and drawing the eyes to that open, dangerous face. Similarly, Downey Jr. knocks it out of the park, with all of Gayle’s craven desperation for ratings and sick, prurient desire for fame at any cost happening without dialog, as his face reacts to Mickey’s grand pronouncements.
The subsequent riot sequence really deserves an essay unto itself (if not a short book); suffice it to say, everything we’ve talked about so far happens again, turned up to 11, and sustains for 30 agonizing, heart stopping, horrifically violent minutes, as guards and informants are tortured and murdered, riot squads mow down prisoners, Gayle totally loses his mind, and Mickey and Mallory desperately search for a way out. It’s a tour de force of Stone’s filmmaking vision and ability, and for my money a sequence that, in terms of sheer visceral energy, he has never bettered.
But the thing about Natural Born Killers is that, for all that it is a high energy, ultra-violent explosion of a movie, it’s also thoughtful, poignant. Whilst the media and public love Mickey and Mallory, the film portrays them as irredeemably vicious, for all their professed love for each other – while the story does seek to understand, it doesn’t attempt to excuse, in other words. What it does do is ask some very uncomfortable questions about the wider culture they exist in, and the sickness that drives us to commodify and fetishize killers.
Stone described it as his vomiting up what he saw of the culture as he was making the film in ‘94 – and indeed, that culture itself infected the movie, warping the story and sense of direction. The reason Mickey and Mallory get away, at the end, is because, in Stone’s own words, ‘everyone was getting away with it’ – and to prove the point, the film ends with clips of OJ, Rodney King post beating, and the Menendez brothers, among others (the film was made just too early to include Clinton lying about his sexual exploits, but that fits too).
Everyone gets away with it, no matter how horrible. If your profile is big enough, you are bullet proof. That’s the true source of the furious nihilism that beats at the heart of this dark, dark film – the notion that there is not simply a different rule for the rich and famous, but no rule at all. Mickey and Mallory represent the ultimate embrace of that amoral selfishness. Do As Thy Wilt is the whole of their law, and after killing their way across half of creation, they ride off into the sunset, untouched and untouchable, free from both guilt and consequence.
Talk about a horror movie.
Kit Power lives in Milton Keynes and writes horror and dark crime fiction, with occasional forays into dystopian science fiction, though he insists you shouldn’t assume a connection between these two facts. He has a novel, ‘GodBomb!’, and a novella collection ‘Breaking Point’ – both available on Kindle and in paperback and published by The Sinister Horror Company, and his debut short fiction and essay collection, the snappily titled ‘A Warning About Your Future Enslavement That You WIll DIsmiss As A Collection Of Short FIction And Essays By Kit Power’ is also available in Kindle ebook and regular paperback worldwide.
In his increasingly inaccurately labelled spare time, he podcasts – on his own show, Watching Robocop With Kit Power, and as one quarter of the legendary Wrong With Authority team. For weekly early access to his fiction, non-fiction, and podcasts, including exclusive material and goodies, visit www.patreon.com/kitpower – early and exclusive access starts at just $1 a month ($3 a month backers got to watch him write this essay live, and also get sent free ebooks pre-publication). He also regularly blogs for Gingernuts of Horror, Europe’s most popular independent review site