Friday, November 6, 2009

Natural Born Killers

Before a young, hyperactive video clerk by the name of Quentin Tarantino became, for better or worse, the icon of American independent cinema in the '90s, he toted around a couple of scripts around Hollywood hoping to direct them but at the very least looking to sell one. He managed, of course, to hold onto Reservoir Dogs for himself, his script for True Romance was optioned and eventually given to Tony Scott. His other screenplay, though, is what set the ball rolling for QT in the first place. Tarantino shopped the screenplay for Natural Born Killers around Hollywood in '91, caused a bit of a stir that helped him secure the capital for Reservoir Dogs, then he set aside the script as an immature work full of good ideas and dialogue but bursting with unfulfilled potential -- and he's very much right; his NBK starts incredibly but it loses steam in the second half.

Again, this was before the persona known as "QT" hit big, so this display of humility did not elicit the proper amount of gravity for Warner Bros., who bought the thing anyway and gave it to Oliver Stone. Now, if Tony Scott was a fun fit for Tarantino, Oliver Stone was a sign from God that this kid was going to ride Fortune's wheel to the top. You can argue for a certain degree of subtlety in Tarantino's scripts -- the utter genius of the "Eggplant" scene in True Romance, how Inglourious Basterds, for all its "badassery," shows a group of characters consumed by their quest for revenge, not validated by it -- but even the most cynical of haters would admit that QT is Voltaire compared to Oliver Stone. Indeed, even Tarantino's script was a bit too satirical and not not direct enough, so Stone and his writers kept most of the dialogue and reworked the story around it. The original writer disowned it, but eventually he divorced himself from his personal feelings on the tampering and admitted an admiration for Stone's choices.

That seems to be the appropriate response to this movie, regardless of how you feel about it: at least some level of admiration for it. Stone was coming off the more low-profile Heaven & Earth at the time, but he was still the man who was enjoying one of the most notable runs of any director of the last 25 years: Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK. It was Stone's world, and we all just lived in it. By the time this story of sensationalized mass murderers entered post-production, the country had been positively inundated with ghastly reflections of this erstwhile piece of satire: O.J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers, hell, even Tanya Harding. That Stone could put out this damning piece of social commentary, particularly one so openly avant-garde, deserves recognition in its own right.

For my money, it deserves the attention. In some respects, no other American film of the decade was as important. Just as America's fascination with crime and violence began to openly assert itself, Stone's Killers wasn't so much a splash of cold water to the face as a sledgehammer. Its dizzying use of edits, different film stocks, color tinting and host of other tricks (including animation and flickering between images as if changing channels) reflect the stupefying disorientation of television. Much of the film's violence, so virulently debated and decried, is presented as captured footage or dramatic reenactments of Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) Knox's crimes, all of which are just as violent and exploitative as the moments where we witness them in real time.

The presentation of the film as television is a retooling of Tarantino's original verité-like documentary footage, which he abandoned in the second half anyway. Stone's choice is funnier and more relevant, and it allows him to inject some of the most ingenious flourishes of his career. The original screenplay, centered on media personality Wayne Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.) and gave little background to the serial killers, which Stone rectified by making the warped lovebirds the full focus; his framing of Mallory's abusive childhood as an "aw-shucks" sitcom is possibly the singly most brilliant thing he's ever done. With Rodney Dangerfield playing the physically and sexually abusive father and an accompaniment of canned laughter, its easy to fall into the rhythm of a typical sitcom, until you realize that Dangerfield's punchlines are horrific descriptions of rape and beatings, all the more frightening in how Stone juxtaposes them with the laugh track, underlining how sitcoms in general milk laughs from some form of abuse and positing that violence is so ingrained in our culture that we find it inoffensively funny (how many of all the actions films made each year feature some death played for laughs?).

Mickey has his own childhood demons, and in this way Stone presents these characters as products of a violent society that matures into freewheeling madness just as Mickey and Mallory mature into their own. As such, society venerates them, chiefly through Wayne Gale, a Geraldo Rivera with Robin Leach's accent, whose program American Maniacs has never been more popular. His appearance is broadly satiric in the first half, where Gale plays in the background of Mickey and Mallory's rampage, gently inciting the public into accepting these two as heroes of some sort.

The third act, which actually lasts half the movie, takes place in prison following Mickey and Mallory's capture -- hilariously, Stone set their shootout with the cops to the Carmina Burana, further emphasizing it as a piece of operatic television. Many point to the second half as a letdown following the impressionistic, madcap murder spree, but just as Full Metal Jacket before it, Natural Born Killers needs the sudden shift in gear to flesh out its striking opening into a concrete message. Moving the pair to prison allows a juxtaposition against two cops: Detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), a warped, misogynistic sadist obsessed with murderers after Charles Whitman shot his mother during his rampage at the University of Texas; and Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones), an equally brutal warden who deals with the increasing overpopulation of his prison with violent offenders by physically asserting himself over those who dare step out of line. Scagnetti attempts to force himself on Mallory, who responds to his offer of a cigarette by stomping it out with her bare foot. McClusky, unlike the showboat Scagnetti, doesn't like the publicity coming his way and wants Mickey and Mallory simply and quietly killed. Yet he clearly works on his image, and he's too busy preening his devilish look to contemplate the full truth of his statement, "This place isn't a prison; it's a time bomb."

Gale's interview with Mickey is appropriately histrionic (on the presenter's part, at least), but the killer's cold rationality for his actions sparks a riot. Suddenly, television's role as a passive propagandist becomes an active character as Gale's ever-dwindling crew is forced to follow Mickey as he rescues Mallory and navigates through the horrific bloodbath that is the direct result of television. Up until this point, Natural Born Killers does not fully qualify as satire, as Stone leaps so fervently into the heart of the beast that the film's extreme violence is largely inseparable from the sort that it seeks to condemn. At last, though, it emerges as a piece of genius, as Gale is so consumed in his own hype that he too begins to gun down prison guards in a frenzy. As TV destroys itself in rapid montage, Mickey and Mallory emerge the evolved "natural born killers," the idols of a world that has finally come to celebrate its evil side, and they re-establish the "purity" of violence by killing the representative of that which turned it into a a product.

People always like to say of performances they love, even in films they might dislike, "Oh, if so-and-so wasn't in it the movie wouldn't have been half as good." I don't know why people say this, as it is so asinine as to warrant nothing but mockery -- The Godfather wouldn't be the same without Al Pacino; is it a bad film?. However the casting of Woody Harrelson, then known (fittingly, given the context of the film) only as dopey Woody from Cheers, and Juliette Lewis as two psychotic yet perversely endearing serial killers should remain an example until the end of cinema as an example of absolutely perfect casting. Downey, Sizemore and Jones also give incredible performances, all of them wildly exaggerated yet perfectly plausible in this disgusting world. But the real star here is Stone, whose techniques are utterly distracting, yet intentionally so. By the end of the film's two hours, he's destroyed the exploitative medium of television through sheer sensory overload, and his final blow is to the audience itself, as he ends with channel surfing through the sensationalizes murder trials of the day. In a career distinguished by visual inventiveness, even mastery, Natural Born Killers stands as his finest technical achievement. Upon seeing it a second time, I'm tempted to call it his greatest film, period; has any other mainstream film so trashed our cultural acceptance, even infatuation, with violence without resorting to preaching?

1 comment:

  1. The film is brash and crude and full of clichés, but it has actually aged really well. I saw it a few months back for the first time since seeing it at the cinema on its original release. The unusual visual style doesn’t feel as alien as it did back then and in a media and reality TV obsessed age its lack of subtlety are actually a benefit to the satire where historically they had been a hindrance