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Natural Born Killers

#274 - Natural Born Killers
Oliver Stone, 1994

A pair of married mass murderers kill their way across America, capturing the world's attention in the process.

I saw Natural Born Killers over a decade ago and disliked it so much that it went onto my Worst 100 because not only was it a mess, but it wasn't even an enjoyable mess. Even so, when I saw it pop up on Netflix recently I decided that it might as well be worth a second chance. Unfortunately, ten years on and after having watched a bunch of Stone's other movies (to me, this film feels like it mixes the best aspects of JFK with the worst aspects of The Doors) hasn't done enough to further endear me to this film.

Natural Born Killers is supposed to be a satire of how the media sensationalises violence for the sake of ratings and profits without caring about the greater social damage it's doing as a result. The film seems to be a bit too complicit in all this as it spends its first half setting up its two leads, Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) as they meet up, kill her abusive parents, then hit the road, get married with a blood pact and proceed to go on a cross-country killing spree. Their incredibly screwed-up backgrounds and the fact that they are so hopelessly head-over-heels in love with each other are supposed to endear us to their situation and make them somewhat sympathetic, but it doesn't work because they still come across as gormless fools whose actions are (perhaps deliberately) given the flimsiest of justifications. Their killings draw the attention of the mass media and the world in general, thanks in no small part to the host (Robert Downey Jr.) of a true-crime television series. As a result, the first half of the film plays out like a somewhat typical American road movie, which is of course so fundamentally boring that the film changes things up halfway through by having Mickey and Mallory finally getting caught and imprisoned. As such, the second half of the film ends up being considerably superior, though not enough to sufficiently save the film.

I know this film has a reputation for being a love-or-hate kind of deal, but I honestly struggle to see how anyone could seriously love this film. I'll admit there are things about this film that I grudgingly like. It seems funny that Stone's JFK won Oscars for its cinematography and editing, both of which are shot to hell in this film as it throws every possible stock and technique into the mix. The cinematography is actually good for the most part, though one could question how necessary a lot of the frenzied editing choices were (such as the frequent flicking back and forth between black-and-white and colour, or violent animated fragments). The soundtrack also has its fair share of good tunes thanks to being curated by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, though some of them are ridiculously on-the-nose (the prime example being Jane's Addiction's "Ted, Just Admit It...", a song that condemns the media's attitude towards violent murderers and takes about seven minutes to make the same point that Stone does in two hours) or ludicrously aggressive (Rage Against the Machine, L7, etc.) Such musical choices are pretty indicative of just how blatant and ineffective the film's attempts at satire are. This much extends to the supporting cast of "good" characters, whose depth basically amounts to them being - shock horror! - even worse than the vacuous, murderous protagonists. Aside from Downey Jr. as the amoral TV host who seeks to profit off the duo's deeds, there's also Tom Sizemore as a heroic detective who harbours his own perverted ultra-violent tendencies and Tommy Lee Jones as a prison warden who would rather see his most notorious charges dead than alive.

It's a shame, then, that Natural Born Killers absolutely fails to stick to its point. There are some good qualities - the cinematography is good when it's not being cut to ribbons for no apparent reason (though Stone supposedly knows what's he doing with the film's disjointed aesthetic) and, though most of the performances actually tend to be irritating, I have to give credit to Jones' hamminess and Rodney Dangerfield's brief against-type turn as Mallory's extremely reprehensible father (who almost makes the flashback's 1950s-style sitcom veneer work). Ultimately, though, this film is still an overly long and painful-to-watch mess that isn't nearly as clever as it thinks it is and has its occasional intriguing aspects buried by the generally poor quality of the rest of the film. Given the extremely shallow mindset behind the film and its message, I guess it's no surprise that I still find it as intolerable as I did when I was 14 - if you wouldn't like this even a little as a teenager then it's hard to imagine you liking it at any other age.