Monday, January 27, 2014

Natural Born Killers / *1/2 (1994)

There is something to be said of movies that permeate with the self-gratifying conceit of a director misplaced in his own arrogance. Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” is a thoroughly unpleasant experience that masquerades under the ruse of cutting edge satire, and does so with the delusion that its elaborate ironies are compelling enough to neutralize the cynicism of the conviction. To say that it left me feeling dejected understates the obvious; it plays on psychological impulses with no substantial merit, other than maybe an underlying desire to investigate the criminal mind and make sense of it. Is there potential in that? In an era saturated by the notion of murder and mayhem being passages to fame, you would think so. But we charge motion pictures with delivering such messages through pragmatic intentions, or at least halfway plausible mockery. Here is a movie that assumes the path to enlightenment lies in pitching curve balls and then mercilessly beating us over the head with a sledgehammer for not catching them.

20 years have passed since Stone’s film created waves in Hollywood, and it has found a dedicated following in cult circuits. Many even herald it as a prophecy in recognizing the underlying celebrity status of serial killers, perhaps to the same degree that most consider “Network” to be an omen on the media’s thirst for violence. The comparison, however, ends there; while the former was made with certain deviousness and humor, “Natural Born Killers” opts to deliver its material through means that are blatant exercises in overload. At the center of the picture are two characters that by most standards would be considered fascinating: a Mallory (Juliette Lewis), a lowly young woman whose family life consists of verbal and physical abuse, and Mickey (Woody Harrelson), who whisks her away into a world of perpetual violence and nightmarish visions. I might have found their antics halfway intriguing had their director not absorbed them in so much pretentious disorder, but alas they occupy the screen like mindless conduits in a game of erratic meaning.

The movie takes place almost as if its participants are displaced from the actual events. A sleazy news reporter known as Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.) begins the story by telling us about the famed legend of Mickey and Mallory, two destined lovers who began a lengthy killing spree cross country at the home of Mallory’s morally bankrupt parents, and have since whipped through countless small towns like a hurricane of death. Gale’s coverage of the events has given the two the notoriety of a modern day Bonnie and Clyde, and in one of the film’s key scenes there are crowds of supporters on the streets anxious to divulge their enthusiasm for the wanted criminals (one announces with some level of audacity: “Mickey and Mallory are the best thing to happen to mass murder since Manson!”). What made them so popular in the eyes of avid viewers, other than the opportunist motives of a media man desperate for ratings? There is a sense that the story occurs in a closed world that already accepts these traits as groundwork for plausible idolization, and Stone embellishes them for, I guess, the sake of expanding their reflective nature to our own society. How insightful of him.

There is no limit to the depravity that these two are capable of. The first scene sets the pattern succinctly: in a random diner out in the middle of nowhere, they exchange superficial dialogue with a waitress who finds them mysterious, and Mallory excuses herself from a bar stool to dance in front of the jukebox. Two middle-aged men enter the diner, and one proceeds to dance seductively with her. Threatening words are exchanged, and a fist fight ensues. Then there are knives, and wounds, and splatters of blood; two are left alive, and Mallory giggles as she decides which one of the remaining people stays alive (one has to, you see, because it is in their code to leave behind one survivor to tell the tale). The silver lining: both Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson do not phone in performances, and seem genuinely immersed by the ironic nature of this story. There is even a brief moment late in the picture when you even sense the screenplay finally arriving at a pitch perfect argument (the Woody Harrelson character sits down for an interview in prison with Gale, and descends into a potent diatribe that is both observant and harsh in its mirroring of hard facts).

Unfortunately, moments like that are negated by the fact that little of it is directed with a cohesive style. There are vague hints early on that Oliver Stone knows precisely what he means to do from the technical angle; the camera is always pointed towards people from slanted positions (a trait typical of filmmakers who hone in on characters with sanity issues), and the movie mixes color footage with black-and-white takes as if to suggest certain scenes occur from within the mind. Later, we learn about Mallory’s grim home life – and Mickey’s subsequent arrival – in a sequence that stages the event like a network sitcom (with a laugh track and all), and he manages to get an alarmingly effective dramatic performance out of Rodney Dangerfield as Mallory’s deviant father. But once the plot takes detours into the desert, follows a shady detective (Tom Sizemore) on the trail of the two killers and then eventually winds up in a prison run by an eccentric foreman played by Tommy Lee Jones, the movie loses any sense of shape or tact. What gives? My initial sense is that Stone’s focus wavers as a result of trying to say too many things without the benefit of thematic unity. “JFK” too featured a plethora of observations, but they were delivered concisely, and all arrived at the same point: losing a president so tragically causes the minds of mourners to think in broad contexts in order to find finality to their grief. “Natural Born Killers” plays like a mad dash across the cerebral mind-field in search of the right mood for these subjects, and it fails drastically at arriving where it needs to.

The original screenplay, reportedly deconstructed and then rewritten by Stone and two others, was initially conceived in the mind of Quentin Tarantino – a clue, perhaps, that the premise would in fact work in hands less inclined to send the material far past the razor’s edge. Tarantino has been accused of allowing violence to overwhelm his movies as far back as “Reservoir Dogs,” but never has he allowed it to upstage the thesis; nor, for that matter, did he ever use such material to propel a visual style that was as schizophrenic or borderline incoherent. What in the world was Oliver thinking when he gazed back at his end result? Was he satisfied with the outcome, or even proud that he managed to concoct such a lurid affair devoid of an effective pitch? Some directors make the mistake early on in their careers of treating the camera like it were a gun they are toting for the first time, and Stone’s is basically an Uzi that cannot be aimed in time. But that’s forgivable in hindsight, I guess; these days, it is safe to say he’s graduated to the accuracy of sniper rifles.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Thriller/Satire (US); 1994; Rated R for extreme violence and graphic carnage, for shocking images, and for strong language and sexuality; Running Time: 118 Minutes

Cast:
Woody Harrelson: Mickey Knox
Juliette Lewis: Mallory Knox
Tom Sizemore: Det. Jack Scagnetti
Rodney Dangerfield: Ed Wilson
Robert Downey Jr.: Wayne Gale
Tommy Lee Jones: Warden Dwight McClusky
Edie McClurg: Mallory’s Mom

Produced by
Risa Bramon Garcia, Jane Hamsher, Arnon Milchan, Thom Mount, Don Murphy, Richard Rutowski, Clayton Townsend and Rand VosslerDirected by Oliver Stone; Written by David Veloz, Richard Rutowski and Oliver Stone; based on a story written by Quentin Tarantino

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