Natural Born Killers, from a story by Quentin Tarantino, tells the story of two mass murderers, Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis). The film begins with a killing spree, moves back to their meeting and their three-week sweep through the Southwest. In those three weeks, they kill 52 people. They are captured, after being snakebitten, while looking for snakebite serum in a drugstore. Their captor, Detective Jack Scagnetti, seems as pathological as the two young killers. The story flashes forward a year to the maximum-security prison where they are held.
It seems that a television journalist, Wayne Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.) has a television show, "American Maniacs," where he profiles serial killers. The public is quite fascinated by Mickey and Mallory, and Wayne has fed the fascination. He proposes to Mickey and to the warden (Tommy Lee Jones) that he, Wayne, interview Mickey live on Super Bowl Sunday. Both parties are agreeable but the warden wants Mickey and Mallory put away for good. They have incited trouble in the prison; the other prisoners idealize them. He invites Jack Scagnetti to take both out of prison and dispose of them right after the interview.
This doesn't happen because the interview is so inflammatory. Mickey celebrates that he does what he does so well because he was born to it—he's a natural born killer. Upon hearing this, the prison erupts, the convicts go on a rampage. In the confusion, Mickey disarms a guard and begins to kill again. He takes hostages, including Wayne Gale, and they free Mallory and kill Jack Scagnetti; while the majority of hostages are killed by police fire. Using a guard and Wayne Gale as human shields, while Gales' TV camera records it all, Mickey and Mallory make good their escape.
In the woods, on live TV, they kill Wayne Gale, who they claim is worse than a killer, a parasite, and they go on, it seems, to live happily ever after. Mallory speaks of it being time to have a family.
This narrative description can't give more than an outline of Natural Born Killers. The film is actually organized in a series of set-pieces—the pre-credit introduction to Mickey and Mallory in a roadside diner; they kill all but one of the customers. A television situation comedy show follows. It introduces Mickey and Mallory, her abusive father, the impotent mother, and the young brother. This show is complete with laugh track. The show is called "I Love Mallory." The next sequence introduces Australian-American reporter Wayne Gale and his television show, "American Maniacs." On the show, they do a dramatic reenactment of two Mickey and Mallory killings. London, Tokyo—the media spreads the fame of these killers around the world.
A set-piece of Mickey and Mallory in a motel room follows. They have a spat and he amuses himself with a female hostage; she amuses herself with a gas station attendant. When he recognizes her, she kills him. A sequence with an Indian who handles rattlesnakes follows. The Indian seems to be the first person Mickey respects. Accidentally, Mickey kills the Indian. As the lovers run away, both are snakebitten. A set-piece in a drug mart follows. Both are ill. In this sequence the lovers are captured by the police. A year later in jail, Wayne Gale requests an interview with Mickey. Mickey agrees. In this sequence the hero worship of Mickey and Mallory by young people is highlighted. The interview is the next set-piece. Jack Scagnetti's parallel encounter with Mallory is the next. The strong sexual current of this sequence is juxtaposed with the romantic dimension of the first part of the live interview with Mickey—the theme is love can tame the demon. The prison riot is the next set-piece, followed by Mickey's escape. Shortly thereafter follows a final sequence in Mallory's cell. The next sequence captures their escape from prison. In the woods, the last taping of Wayne Gale's show ends with his murder on camera. The title sequence that follows is a merging of past and future images. They imply that Mickey and Mallory survive and have a family.
Looking at the sequences in a general way, one notices how much each resembles a music video. Music is the overall shaping device. The first sequence begins with Leonard Cohen's "Waiting for a Miracle." The last sequence is shaped by Cohen's "The Future." Thirty songs are used in between.
Each sequence has within itself remarkable latitude to use images of the characters, images of animals, theatrical images of monsters, dragons, headless bodies, presented in a highly stylized manner: black and white, natural color, filtered color (usually blood red), TV images of the Menendez brothers and O. J. Simpson trials, TV images from the 50s, filmic images from The Wild Bunch, for example, and animated cartoon-like drawings. Add to this distortions from morphing, highlight shifting to low light, and you have a range of images that runs the gamut from natural to non-natural. Often these images will be thrown together in the same sequence.
The capacity to reflect on the media itself is ever-present. Beyond the references to other films, much is made in the film of the role of television in American life. The introduction of Mickey and Mallory's meeting is presented in the form of a situation comedy. Three of their clashes with the law are presented in the form of a Saturday morning cartoon. And the actuality television style of Wayne Gale's television show, "American Maniacs," to sketch their career and to demonstrate its power on the young as well as the convicts in prison, is a frightening condemnation of the role of television in the promotion of violence.
Finally each sequence uses black-and-white and color images intertwined to pose the question: Which is imagined and which is real? The crossover doesn't make the answer any clearer. Sometimes the black-and-white images seem to be remembrances of Mickey's childhood. At other times they reference in a journalistic way the faces and feelings of the other convicts in maximum-security prison. In terms of color, it ranges from the unreal use of green as a motif in the diner sequence that opens the film. The green is the key lime pie Mickey eats, and it is the cartoon color of the diner. That green can alternate with black-and-white or with blood red. In each case the sharp shifts in color create a sense of stylization that affirms this is a media event and manipulation you are watching. Enjoy! The newsreel black-and-white interspliced goes with the confusion between reality and dream this film plays with.
These are the general elements of the MTV style in Natural Born Killers. More specifically, we can look at any sequence and see how Oliver Stone pushes the feeling state over the narrative linearity of plot. In the opening sequence, for example, one is aware of the extreme close-ups intercut with long shots. It is the dead eye of a deer in close-up cutting to a distorted wide-angle shot of the truck in front of the diner, complete with dead deer on its roof. Mickey is eating his pie in color and remembering his past in black and white. The camera studies him in close. The back of his head crowds the front of the camera. Mallory on the other hand is presented in long shot dancing alone initially to the music of the juke box. The camera undulates side to side, unstable as she is unstable. When she is joined by one of the men from the truck, she is seductive and suggestive and soon lethal. Here Stone jump cuts her attack on the male, details its and makes it more violent through the use of the jump cuts.
The pace increases as the killing begins, only to be slowed down when Mickey throws a knife at the man outside. The camera tracks the trajectory of the knife, emphasizing the unreality of the killing. Only the man's death brings back the sense of realism via sound. The next death, the stylized death of the waitress, is presented in almost farcical terms. The camera sways with the choosing of the last victim between the waitress and the last male. When the choice is made, Mickey shoots her but his bullet hits the pan she is holding. The impact of the pan kills her. It seems a comic moment in its presentation. She is the fourth victim of Mickey and Mallory in the diner.
The movement of the camera, the extreme close-ups, the foreground crowding of character in the frame alternating with extreme wide angle shots of action and character in the background, gives the sequence a tension that Stone uses to make the sequence function on a stylized as well as narrative level. The color shifts increase the stylization. And the occasional images of nature—tarantulas, rabbits—contextualize the events with the natural world. Whether Stone is implying the similarities or differences becomes clearer later in the Indian sequence when he uses both perspectives in nature and man's behavior. Mickey also refers to the natural order of things in his live interview with Wayne Gale.
This pattern of viewing each sequence as a music video unto itself yields when put together on a two-hour narrative frame the sense that Stone has put together a narrative that is a music video and that comments on the ethics of the music video. His style as well as the unappealing actions and goals of the main characters, gives us little choice but to consider Natural Born Killers as Oliver Stone's meditation on violence, and the media, in American society.
Stone has always been a vigorous filmmaker interested in ideas, society, history, but nothing before has prepared us for the artfulness of the challenge he meets and transcends in Natural Born Killers. As much as we don't like to acknowledge it, Stone has created in Natural Born Killers a meditation on what he does—manipulate, and he both celebrates and condemns the power of the media. The MTV style, its qualities and its goals, have never been used in so creative a way.
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