Jun 15, 2011

VHS Memories: Natural Born Killers

Dir: Oliver Stone

The Memories 
Like every movie lover who was in his teens in the mid 1990's, I wanted to see ALL OF Quentin Tarantino's films. One small problem... I'm British, and Jamie Bulger had recently been murdered, precipitating a second moral panic about violent films being available on video. This led to BBFC bowing to pressure and delaying certification decisions on True Romance and Reservoir Dogs (among others) for well over a year and to Warner Brothers canceling the video release of Natural Born Killers - though it is still falsely reported as having been a banned title the uncut 18 certificate was always in place and it was purely a decision of Warner to leave the film unreleased in the UK market until 2001.

Obviously, whatever the reasons, when you tell a film fan he can't see something, that immediately means he wants to see it. So, I managed to obtain a second generation VHS, copied, I believe, from an American release. There was one small issue... It had been recorded on long play, and I, at this time - probably somewhere around '96 or '97 - didn't own a long play VCR. I watched it anyway.

My abiding memory of my first viewing of NBK is trying desperately to get the tracking to come in watchably, and trying to discern some of the dialogue through the double speed, suddenly helium voiced, performances. It's a strangely appropriate way, I think, to have first experienced it, firstly because, even at normal speed, NBK is a weird movie and also because that amount of effort feels appropriate for what was, for me at the time, one of the great forbidden holy grails of home viewing. So, how does it hold up? Let's find out...

The Movie 
It is easy to see why, in 1994, Natural Born Killers caused a storm of controversy, and why some people still hate the film, because it's still shocking, still feels dangerous, seventeen years on. It is satire, but it is also very easy to see where the people who decried this film as no more than an orgy of violence that makes heroes of two serial killers were coming from, because Oliver Stone manipulates every shot of the film in order to manipulate us into seeing these psychopaths the way that the mainstream media (personified by Robert Downey, Jr as TV tabloid journalist Wayne Gale) are portraying them. The film, however, does much that subverts and comments on that surface reading.

Early in Quentin Tarantino's career we got to see how his ideas looked filtered through a selection of other filmmakers, Jackie Brown notwithstanding, these films; True Romance, From Dusk Till Dawn and NBK are my favourites of his now 20 year career. NBK, despite its basic story having a very Tarantinoesque feel, is an Oliver Stone film through and through. Stone can be an infuriating filmmaker, he often slaps his audience in the face with his films messages, and his tendency to make digressions and indulge in his own obsessions can become wearing - and NBK is not immune on that score - but when Stone is visibly engaged in a project there are few filmmakers more interesting or more exciting. Though it seems to be anomaly in his filmography, NBK is actually the perfect film for Oliver Stone to have made, he runs wild here, his every crazy idea rampaging through the film like a bull in a china shop, as if he's trying to see just how much he can fuck with the medium. It doesn't always work, but it's never, ever, boring.

The film starts as it means to go on, with a scene that is brutally violent, inventively shot and cut, seductively stylish and unexpectedly funny. This diner set prologue, in which the films protagonists; serial killer couple Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) Knox gleefully murder a selection of truckers and a waitress over breakfast is the film's most Tarantinoesque, but shot through with the blitzkrieg style filmmaking that Stone is about to immerse us in for the next two hours. The use - at seemingly random intervals - of colour and black and white, 35 and 16mm stock, and the incredible pace of the cutting is difficult to adjust to to begin with, but it is impossible not to become caught up in the violent action that erupts when Mallory attacks the trucker who has been flirting with her, and L7's Shitlist begins blaring away on the soundtrack. Like Michael Haneke did with Funny Games a few years later, Stone asks us to revel in this violence, and later he'll (more subtly than Haneke) ask why we do.

Beyond the sheer verve of the filmmaking, the reason that NBK really grabs you is in the performances. They are all of a type; overblown, but the film is so over the top, so relentless, that if the acting was smaller or more subtle it would get swamped. Harrelson and Lewis are particularly good, he as a detached, sometimes thoughtful, psychopath, her as a more gleeful and impulsive one. Their Mickey and Mallory may be despicable murderers, but they are incredibly charismatic; Lewis in particular is so unpredictable, such a coiled spring of dangerous energy, that she is fascinating to watch here (it's a crying shame that she doesn't work much, and certainly not in roles this good, anymore). Also helpful in drawing us in is that, however overblown the film, and despite the fact that it is founded in seconds through a bizarre sitcom parody that provides Mallory's backstory, Mickey and Mallory's relationship does convince. Harrelson and Lewis reportedly didn't get along, but their chemistry works brilliantly, powering the film's epic prison escape sequence, and allowing us, perhaps, the tiniest morsel of identification.

Around those central performances are a set of grotesques, caricatures of a tabloid journalist (Downey's aforementioned Wayne Gale, who he plays with an exaggerated Australian accent, for no readily apparent reason), a tough as nails prison warden (Tommy Lee Jones, having a ball in his third film for Stone) and a seriously disturbed cop who is hunting Mickey and Mallory, but is a rapist and killer himself (Tom Sizemore as Jack Scagnetti, about whom it would have been fascinating to see a whole - more serious - film). You have to be on board with the tone by the time these even more outlandish characters become a large presence in the film about an hour in, or they are just going to annoy you, but in the context of the film they're all brilliantly engaging, and often hilariously funny.

Natural Born Killers has some incredibly striking sequences. From the diner to the sitcom sequence which ends in the murder of Mallory's parents (played by Rodney Dangerfield and Ferris Bueller's Edie McClurg), to the sickly green tinted Drug Zone confrontation which leads to Mickey and Mallory's capture, right through to the monumental, roughly 30 minute, prison riot / breakout which forms the film's third act and, in keeping with the lunatic tone, was filmed in a real maximum security prison, with real lifers as extras. That riot is an incredibly visceral sequence, there's a palpable feeling of chaos and danger in it both in the situation and sometimes in the performances themselves.

The satire of the film, which so many people seemed to miss at the time, lies in its extreme content, and in the way it sees Mickey and Mallory as both products of and commodities to be exploited by pop culture. It implicitly asks (without shouting at us for watching the movie the way Haneke did) whether this is healthy. It's an interesting question too, because we can see echoes of things like the vox pops of Mickey and Mallory fans in day to day life now - consider the Facebook group that declared Raoul Moat a 'legend' or the way that one British newspaper ran a story from a satirical site suggesting that there was to be a Grand Theft Auto game based on the crimes of mass murderer Derrick Bird as fact. It can't obviously, have been the intention, but NBK has only become more relevant as time has gone on.

It's not a perfect film. It's really less a story than a series of connected scenes and, as I said before, Stone's obsessions crop up, giving us the movie's one major misstep; a desert set sequence in which Mickey and Mallory encounter a wise old Indian and are attacked by snakes. Yes, it leads into the great Drug Zone sequence, but the ten minutes we spend in the desert seem to have been teleported in from some other movie; one that's not as good as Natural Born Killers.

For the most part though, this is a relentlessly engaging, intriguing and entertaining film. Few movies have such a freewheeling feeling about them, and few filmmakers could combine that with social commentary as effectively as Oliver Stone does here. I was surprised how well it still played long after my last viewing, but this remains truly exciting cinema.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review. I finally saw this movie just last week. I had always wanted to...but never gotten around to it. I was struck by now incredibly...90s...it was. It almost felt like a movie made in 2011...about the 90s. Few films are THAT conscious of the aesthetics, tropes, and memes of the current culture. But, somehow, NBK seemed to take the overall tone of the 90s, and boil it down to the essence. Very interesting movie for sure...