R-RATED Image B+ Sound A Extras B+
NC-17 Image A- Sound A Extras A-
starring Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones
screenplay by David Veloz & Richard Rutowski & Oliver Stone
directed by Oliver Stone
by Walter Chaw Lodged in there like the apple in Gregor Samsa's back next to the spine of the American character is this corrupt speck of frontier spirit, transmogrified in the heat of late-'50s cynicism and irony by heartland bogies Ed Gein and Charles Starkweather--the veneration of them in our collective heart of darkness stoked by a long tradition of outlaw worship from Jesse James to Bonnie and Clyde. The cinematic children of Gein and Starkweather, erupting from the Eisenhower Eden of rocket ships and Cadillacs, range from epoch-shaking pictures like Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to New American Cinema masterpieces like Badlands and Take the Money and Run. The heartbeat of the zeitgeist can be kenned in this finger to this pulse, in the individualism we celebrate and the establishment against which we secretly nurse these little serpentine malignancies. Enter Oliver Stone, not so much the provocateur as a perverse, self-indulgent chronicler of that American disease--and why not Stone, who's only ever good when he's talking about the United States and only ever talking about the United States when he's talking about anything else. He takes the Starkweather case and fashions it, from a story by Quentin Tarantino, into a work of extreme, fanatical patriotism: Natural Born Killers.
Taken with his U-Turn (the two films sandwich Stone's peculiar, airless Nixon), Natural Born Killers comprises Stone's thesis statement about the pure, sexual potency floating like cream on the crest of the American Dream. His avatars Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) are products of broken families and too much television--the new apple pie and Old Glory; when we close our eyes and think of the Eisenhower era, what do we see but panelled television sets and the nuclear family crowded around its radioactive glow? What Stone suggests in the backstory he gives his rampaging lovers is that the romance of being an American in the twentieth century is inextricably intertwined with the images--cinematic, televised--in which we marinate from the cradle to the grave. He suggests, further, that to understand what it is to be American is to understand the fragments and ruins that wash up against post-modernism as it applies to not just our art and our perception of it, but the contents of our character as well.
About a decade ahead of its time, and about five years before Charlie Kaufman would turn Stone's brusque canticles into melancholy poetry, Natural Born Killers addresses comprehensively how it is that we're only capable of assimilating all our histories and possible futures through the prism of electronic eyes and the swath of shit and vomit in their wake. Reality is officially meaningless in Natural Born Killers; it is in its way as audacious a picture as Lars Von Trier's rail fantasy Zentropa, and in one show-stopper after another, it announces the intention of the '90s to be the death of celluloid as archival sanctuary. When Mickey and Mallory fuck in a hotel room as the sins of the twentieth century, captured in flickering amber, march by their window, well--it was something at the time, but looking at it fourteen years later, it's almost understatement to call it breathtaking.
One theme--perhaps the only theme--carried in a multitude of florid variations from one vignette to the next in Natural Born Killers is the gunpowder alchemy of sex and fantasies of empowerment. As HBO's John Adams miniseries recently illustrated, cock-fighting and fucking is the essence of creation and, more, this is a young country still full of come. The call of history for Stone's heroic couplet, unfortunately, is nothing so noble as independence but rather the siren's song of fame ephemeral: Warhol's dire prophecy distilled into a toxic twenty-second pill. As Mickey awakens from a dream in an Indian's hut, find there a connection to the American frontier and, contemporaneously, to Stone's own penchant for quasi-mysticism--and discover in the stew room for contemplation of the ways religion flowers even in the middle of so unforgiving an environment as our blasted wasteland. Strange to say, but this is Stone at his most auto-critical--understanding that there's a possibility after his remarkable run from Platoon (and before) to this point that Stone could be saying that his Vietnam is embellishment but no less useful for it. Natural Born Killers isn't satire; I think that's the common error. It is, instead, a documentary of a diseased mythology and a scalpel to the warm flesh of how near we remain as a nation to the carnality of our creative impetus. It might be, next to Goodfellas, the quintessential American film of the decade.
THE BLU-RAY DISC (DIGIBOOK)
by Bill Chambers Warner brings the R-rated theatrical cut of Natural Born Killers to Blu-ray in their patented hard-back "book" packaging, which appends the disc with a 42-page full-colour booklet containing a press kit repurposed as liner notes. It's my understanding that although the studio brass are no longer prudes (they finally released the uncut Eyes Wide Shut, after all), the rights to the gorier Director's Cut of the film are tangled up with the former Trimark, i.e., Lionsgate. C'est la vie, though it's interesting to view Natural Born Killers through the veil of, say, Rambo, or Quentin Tarantino's own Death Proof, and realize just how inexplicit it is; even the uncensored version would likely get an R today. Putting all that aside, this is a very difficult film to judge in HiDef given its crazy-quilt aesthetic, and I can't say I truly appreciated how much of an improvement this 1.85:1, 1080p presentation is over its standard-def counterpart until I did an A/B comparison. Once crushed in shots flooded with a single colour, fine detail here retains a sometimes-piercing clarity, while the intense hues themselves are no longer subject to smear. (They have more "pop" at that, especially the greens.) The accompanying 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track meanwhile has more juice than the DD 5.1 alternative. Dig those cannon-blast gunshots: this is one aggro mix, keeping pace with the visuals in molesting the viewer's senses; I can't think of another 1994 film that so cannily exploits the discrete soundstage, though it ultimately lacks the finesse to which we've become accustomed in the years since.
Oliver Stone lodges a feature-length commentary that's a little like Simon Oakland's speech at the end of Psycho. Everything he needs to say--stuff about texture and instinct driving the editing, a quick exegesis on "vertical" cutting--he says up front, leaving the rest strictly for those who need their food chewed for them. Gracious of him to end the yakker by thanking his neg cutter, at least, whose task was indeed Herculean. Stone is far more cryptic (and, consequently, far more engaging) in an excerpt from "The Charlie Rose Show" (12 mins.) that grows progressively more contentious until the seemingly high Stone asks a transparently-irritated Rose, "Don't you have [violent] thoughts or are they pinstriped away?" Stone resurfaces once more in optional video introductions to seven deleted scenes (27 mins. w/intros, 24 mins. without), the longest of which features Ashley Judd in a signature role as one of Mickey and Mallory's surviving victims; Mickey stabs her to death on the witness stand with a pencil, an act Stone--entirely too convinced that Mickey's journey is one of "redemption"--found regressive in context. (As you may tell by their conversance with pop culture, this and an elided Wayne Gale interview with "the Hun Brothers" were virtually unchanged from Tarantino's draft of the script.) Denis Leary should probably be grateful his strained Mickey & Mallory "rap" was deemed gratuitous--it's pretty embarrassing and dated in the worst way. Rounding out the platter: an alternate ending that would've, in addition to helping Natural Born Killers overstay its welcome, transformed a fleeting early image of the prisoner played by Arliss Howard from the ghostly manifestation of a "guardian angel" (quoth Oliver Stone) into a portent of doom; and the film's theatrical trailer. Alas, none of the extras are in HD--or 16x9, for that matter. Originally published: June 19, 2008.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - THE DIRECTOR'S CUT
by Bill Chambers Warner finally releases the Director's Cut of Natural Born Killers under their own roof, on Blu-ray to boot. While the 1.85:1, 1080p presentation is similar to that of the theatrical cut, an A/B comparison indicates they were independently mastered, since the new transfer has considerably more naturalistic skin tones--the colour retiming seems to only affect the red end of the spectrum--and also contains a sliver of additional information down the left side of the screen. (Because the digibook now looks inordinately pink at times, I've docked its video grade accordingly.) Also, my eyes might deceive me, but I thought I spotted a bit more grain in the DC. Any qualitative difference between the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD tracks of the two discs is less obvious, though it's worth noting that the DC's music mix is improved by the lack of edits imposed on the film to get it an R rating. Accompanying the digibook's returning extras (including the insert booklet, newly appended with a preface written by Oliver Stone in 2009) are an optional video introduction from Stone (4 mins., HD) plus two retrospective featurettes, the first, "NBK Evolution: How Would It All Go Down Now?" (22 mins., HD), produced exclusively for this BD, the second, Charles Kiselyak's "Chaos Rising: The Storm Around Natural Born Killers" (27 mins., SD), recycled from Trimark's tape and disc of the DC.
Stone's intro finds the seemingly-ageless filmmaker quoting poet Octavio Paz ("The ancients had visions, we had television"--fair enough, but the ancients didn't have electricity, and some of their "visions" were surely not much more practical than "Mama's Family"), setting an acerbic tone that carries over into "NBK Evolution". Therein, Stone holds the likes of tabloid telejournalist Steve Dunleavy responsible for creating an appetite for sensationalism that essentially paved the way for our current democratized media--and Dunleavy himself accepts the blame with devilish pride. The heads of Twitter, X17, and YouTube are equally shameless about the monsters they've created, while Joey Buttafuoco and Tila Tequila offer the perspective of prefabricated celebrities; with the exception of Stone, all applicable parties embarrass themselves upon being asked to hypothesize about a real-life Mickey & Mallory in today's society. (Needless to say, in their enthusiasm for the many means of communication that would suddenly be at M&M's disposal, they appear to have missed the point of Natural Born Killers entirely.) "Chaos Rising" is almost as interesting a making-of as it is a reminder that Robert Downey, Jr.--here gaunt, manic, and tenaciously clinging to a spoon, of all things--was a fucking mess just a few short years ago. It's a good piece in which Tommy Lee Jones compares the film to "Guernica" and Stone and Woody Harrelson casually mention Harrelson's troubled past as the son of a convicted hitman. Originally published: October 19, 2009.