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DVD SAVANT

Natural Born Killers
Savant Blu-ray Review


Natural Born Killers Blu-ray
Warner DVD
1994 / Color, B&W / 1:85 anamorphic widescreen / 118 122 min. / Street Date June 10, 2008 / 34.99
Starring Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Rodney Dangerfield, Edie McClurg, Russell Means, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jone, Mark Harmon, Arliss Howard
Cinematography Robert Richardson
Production Design Victor Kempster
Film Editors Brian Berdan, Hank Corwin
Original Music Brent Lewis
Written by Quentin Tarantino, David Veloz, Richard Rutowski, Oliver Stone
Produced by Jane Hamsher, Don Murphy, Clayton Townsend
Directed by Oliver Stone

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Natural Born Killers caused a minor furor upon release in 1994, mostly from folks outraged at the depths to which screen violence and cynicism had sunk. They were absolutely right, of course, but that ship had sailed long before, and America was in the middle of a particularly violent trend. With a title and ads promising more screen depravity than ever, the sensitive were more than fairly warned, this critic included. A return to the "lovers on the run" crime subgenre dressed up in pitiless slaughter ("Real Horrorshow", as your neighborhood Droogs might say), Natural Born Killers presents Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as utterly depraved, trigger-happy outlaws.

Warners' new DVD (the standard-length Natural Born Killers, not the director's cut) is an opportunity for a second evaluation of Oliver Stone's self-important comedy of extermination. Does it emerge as the ultimate critique of the death-dance of crime and the media in American culture? Or is it yet another abomination on the bandwagon of crass exploitation? And does anybody care?

Synopsis:

Unrepentant, star-crossed lovers/killers Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson & Juliette Lewis) roam the countryside committing armed robberies. They terrorize and kill, shooting everybody in sight save a solitary witness to feed their growing legend. The darlings of a predatory and immoral media, the Knoxes enjoy worldwide popularity as super-celebrities. Reality show fear-monger Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr. of Iron Man and perhaps the reason for Natural Born Killers' jump to the head of the Blu-ray queue) has become a household name by exploiting the lethal lovers' glamorous aura, and seeks the ultimate coup of a one-on-one jailhouse interview. Manic detective-vigilante Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) is obsessed with catching the pair but harbors sick dreams of sexual dominance over the feral Mallory. Like the scorpion tattoos on her body, Mallory has a habit of teasing and then murdering men that come on to her. Finally captured, the Knoxes end up in the high-security prison of good 'ol boy warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones), who plots to short-cut the flawed justice system and murder them both. But Mickey and Mallory are true to their twisted convictions, and seize an opportunity to escape during a prison riot that turns into a wholesale slaughter.

Natural Born Killers didn't arise from a vacuum, and its paternity is still somewhat in dispute. It's one of the scripts that helped launch Quentin Tarantino, along with his somewhat similar True Romance. The story resembles David Lynch's Wild at Heart, although Tarantino's script might have predated that 1990 thriller. What probably attracted Oliver Stone to the project was the theme of the media relationship with atrocious crime, a trend that has certainly become more evident in the intervening years. The talented Stone seems drawn to outrageous controversy and generally flops when he makes a movie that fails to outrage half the nation. The director dotes on social irresponsibility as an art form, and may have done considerable damage to the culture. His JFK is brilliant filmmaking but its overheated conspiracy hysteria has helped feed warped fantasies in the culture and obscured any sensible examination of the Kennedy assassination.

Natural Born Killers's detractors might call it sleazy anti-social violence porn propped up with an offensively hypocritical and pretentious "message." Perhaps the script pushed the same message, but Tarantinos' films so far have been fairly consistent in going for direct expressions of innocent Grindhouse glory. All he's concerned about is cinema-cool expressions of the vibes to be derived from 70s action films -- dynamic action, gore, sex and style mostly divorced from social messages.

Oliver Stone is the complete reverse of that position in that he claims, in capital letters, Relevance and Meaning for everything he does. Natural Born Killers's crazy-quilt eclecticism is technically adept and highly communicative, but it undercuts itself with noxious speechifying. Challenged by the scurrilous Wayne Gale to explain his philosophy, Mickey Knox issues mouthfuls of evasive, self-justifying semantic rubbish about the purity of his violent vision. In a movie filled with repellent visuals and associations, Mickey's hipster murder manifesto is junior high masturbatory rot dressed up in Nihilistic Chic baloney.

Oliver throws the cinematic kitchen sink at Natural Born Killers, and succeeds in terms of technique and style. Symbolism runs riot, with green coded objects, mysterious signage and scattershot montage tricks, most of which give the film's flow an undeniable punch -- just try and imagine how hollow the film would be without them. Stone employs visual gags, putting discordant stock footage and screaming newspaper headlines into artificial rear-projection for the killers' driving scenes. The flash cutaways to crazy content hit us at a dizzy pace -- shock cuts to various demons driving the Knoxes on their mission and impressionistic glimpses of earlier Stone pics, The Wild Bunch and a hydra-headed dragon from the kiddie epic Captain Sindbad. Some of this machine-gun imagery approaches the effect of the famous "assassin audition montage" in Alan J. Pakula's Parallax View. Fireworks and flaming angels of vengeance dancing in the stars around Mallory's body make their point, but the main compliment for Stone's hyper visuals is that they don't become boring.

Reviewers in 1994 were snowed by Stone's continual jumping between multiple visual formats -- B&W, video, 8mm -- and the resulting implication that Mickey and Mallory are media phantoms and not part of a normal dramatic universe. As the kinky killers are indeed artificial inventions existing to promote a thematic concept, Stone gets a free pass to the Heavy Thinker A-list, right behind Gonzo guru Alejandro Jodorowski.

A supremely ugly shock concept that definitely works is the formatting of Mallory's sordid home life as a crass sitcom, complete with a dimwit mother from the world of John Waters (Edie McClurg) and a father who makes Catskill circuit jokes out of his incestuous lust for his daughter. This reviewer frankly agrees with Stone that American sitcoms need little exaggeration to reach this level of depravity. It's like The Mayor's Tour of the Sewage Plant: factual but unpleasant in the extreme. Stone is an intelligent person and his ideas do indeed communicate on multiple levels, giving us another reason to call off the Angry Villagers with Torches. I prefer a free society over an ideological police state, but one needs to be a firm believer in the goodness in people to maintain hope that entertainment like Natural Born Killers doesn't encourage profoundly antisocial energies.

Then again, TV commercials, political campaigns and our entire consumer culture are just as pernicious. As with Herschel Gordon Lewis' famous quote about his 60s gore films, Stone's Natural Born Killers can be described as a "subject for further research -- like Cancer." And Savant is abundantly aware that all this critical pontificating is adding to the show's promotion. The movie got my mental gears turning, so I certainly can't say it's worthless.  1

Stone's cast leaps to the task of portraying outsized fanatics and zealots; the main failing of the show is that it's not really funny most of the time. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis go both deadpan and silly on their characters, and wear out their welcome quickly. But Stone's supporting maniacs come through with the goods. Tom Sizemore is impressively menacing, while Rodney Dangerfield confirms our discomfort with obscene stand-up comedians. Russell Means is merely okay as a Navajo shaman but Robert Downey Jr. and Tommy Lee Jones are nothing less than fantastic, raising doubtful characters to new heights. Downey Jr. fashions the cardboard Wayne Gale into a preening jerk giddy with media-driven power. Jones makes his deranged warden character hugely enjoyable, ramping up the obscene hysteria with perfect judgment.


Warner's Blu-ray presentation of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers is definitely enhanced by the added oomph of the HiDef format. All that added color and texture blasting out provides a Carnival spook ride complete with sadism and sexual torture galore -- but no nudity or excessive gore, as that might be in bad taste. The show apparently ran a months-long battle with the MPAA until the bluenoses surrendered an "R" rating. All those deprived under-17s were forced to wait a whole six months to see it on video.

Warners formats this delightful summer diversion in a book-like case with a lengthy and colorful picture insert offering trivia and insight on the film. It assumes that Stone has given us the cinematic equivalent of The Gettysburg Address. (Give it up, Savant, do you expect the marketers to knock the movie?) The curious will find plenty of content to help them catch up with the film's impressively dense visual layerings, hosted by the director in person. Stone provides both a commentary and introduction along with additional scenes and an alternate ending, where Mickey and Mallory suffer a shotgun comeuppance. Stone advances his case on The Charlie Rose Show. Trailers and a few other goodies round out the package. The cover illustration gives us an idealized portrait of Harrelson and Lewis posing with their artillery, standing before an American flag with somewhat muted colors. Do I remember the Stars 'n' Stripes being much brighter in earlier ad treatments?


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Natural Born Killers Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Uh, Savant respectfully Abstains, probably because he's too intimidated to peg this one. And the coward calls himself a critic.
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, Introduction, deleted scenes, alternate ending, trailer, TV interview.
Packaging: One Disc in Book-like case with attached glossy booklet.
Reviewed: July 21, 2008

Footnote:

1. Writing about Natural Born Killers is easy compared to a chore coming up from Criterion: Salo: Or the 120 Days of Sodom. Pier Paolo Pasolini's politically and poetically important film is legitimate art and intolerably inhuman. It's nigh unwatchable, unless you've been prepped by the aesthetics of fare like Natural Born Killers, of course.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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