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Natural Born Killers: The Director's Cut
Love him or hate him, Oliver Stone can make a memorable movie. For one reason or another, his films, namely those of the 80s and early 90s stick out in film history. When audiences thought he had hit the pinnacle of controversy with his well-made, but factually questionable look at the JFK conspiracy, three years later, Stone blindsided them with "Natural Born Killers" a hyperactive, no punches pulled look at the exploits of serial killers Mickey and Mallory Knox. Stone would face incredible controversy and criticism from all angles: the MPAA demanded arbitrary (Stone has gone of the record as saying they found the movie upsettingly chaotic) cuts in order to avoid an NC-17 rating, politicians condemned it without having viewed it, and once it was released a small handful of very disturbed individuals pulled copycat stunts.
Fifteen years later, it could be argued Stone has never made a more ambitious picture since, but he is still no stranger to controversy and despite the occasional reference to "Natural Born Killers" as an influence on a horrific crime, the film has sadly begun to gather dust as a footnote in film history. Yes, the violence in the film is no longer shocking when placed side-by-side with your annual installment in "torture porn." However, if society really does consider "Natural Born Killers" to be tame in the level of its extremes, then the film actually has far more reaching impact than one might suspect. One fact does remain unshakeable, this gutsy 1994 satire on serial killer culture and the burgeoning media circus is a grim reminder of just how depraved our intake of sensationalism has grown in less than two decades.
On the surface, "Natural Born Killers" is a simple tale of two lovers: Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis). The catch is they are two deeply damaged, self-aware mass murderers. It's a story cribbed from history, namely Bonnie and Clyde. It's also far from Hollywood's first stab (no pun intended) at telling such a tale. Bonnie and Clyde were glorified as romantic folk heroes in Arthur Penn's 1967 film and again in the more intense "Badlands" which was also partly inspired by real-life events. Mickey and Mallory Knox however, are the ultimate composites of what we expect from killers; they have a distinct look, they are ruthless, and they are charming. It shouldn't be shocking considering the original story for the film was based on a Quentin Tarantino script; the film is an entirely different beast than Tarantino's vision, but a tremendous amount of dialogue made it into the final film, and Mickey and Mallory benefit greatly from their poetic, but sometimes ignorant reflections on life.
However, there's not a lot of hidden depth to why Mickey and Mallory become killers in Stone's film. Stone chooses to spell it out very clearly through the distinct, hyperactive style of editing. His experiments with multiple film stocks (35mm, 16mm, 8mm, video, etc) allow us to get glimpses into the memories and subconscious of our characters. Stone's flashback to Mallory's physically and sexually abusive childhood in the form a 1950s sitcom parody speaks volumes as to her mindset. She is a woman emotionally stunted and scarred, but attempting to reinvent herself as a powerful beast (illustrated through the use of brief flashes of stylized violent animated segments) that will no longer take anyone's abuse. Likewise, Mickey's haunting thoughts of a headless man recall abuse at the hand's of his father and the traumatizing shock of seeing his father commit suicide in front of him. Mickey is a sick individual, but like Mallory is so consumed by these emotional demons, his thoughts turn him into one himself. The concept of demons is a prominent theme through much of the movie, both visually and verbally, especially in the standout scene where the couple comes across an Indian, memorably portrayed by Russell Means.
Fifteen years later however, Stone's unique editing style may seem tired, but only because it's been adapted in small doses by filmmakers in this movie's wake. It's a great injustice to look at "Natural Born Killers" as unoriginal, just because you've seen it done in a more accessible film or perhaps perfected. No one discredits the foundations of early gangster cinema (Public Enemy, Little Caesar) just because Michael Mann, made a slick throwback to the genre with "Public Enemies." If anything, Mann's film will always live in the shadows of its predecessors and likewise, I haven't seen anything that does what "Natural Born Killers" did any better.
The core of the film and its real impact is the satire of the media. If Stone does one thing wrong with this film it's at times being too literal with his indictment of media sensationalism. A final montage of modern (for it's time) media coverage of violence slaps viewers in the face more or less telling them the media is "bad" for the path it has begun to take. In this film, the spokesman for the media is sensationalist Wayne Gale, played by Robert Downey Jr. in one of his career performances. Gale is seedier than the man he salivates over interviewing at the end of the Super Bowl. He's dishonest, underhanded and two-faced, and by the time he gets a sermon from Mickey on the nature of evil, it's very clear that the media is no better than a pair of killers; the only underlying difference is Mickey and Mallory know what they are and don't try and hide it.
Gale is at the forefront of the media party celebrating Mickey and Mallory Knox, elevating them from mere murderers to pop-culture enigmas and feeding it to a public starved for shock value. This is the same media that in the non-Hollywood world of 2007, took a horrible tragedy on a college campus in Virginia and elevated the perpetrator into an infamous figure in American crime by giving his pre-taped ramblings the spotlight for what seemed like weeks on end. It was news, but the same brand of sick sensationalism that Wayne Gale was spewing forth in the name of public interest.
Mickey and Mallory wind up being portrayed in some ways as victims of the media once in "protective" custody. Their high profile crimes draw the attention of another of many unlikable people in the film, Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), a lawman with a lust for the spotlight, who turns that lust into a vendetta against Mickey and Mallory. Like Mickey and Mallory, Scagnetti is scarred by childhood trauma and just as emotionally fractured and depraved, the difference being his gun also comes with a badge and he's fought for years to conceal his personal demons. Similarly, the warden responsible (Tommy Lee Jones) for babysitting the Knox's, is repulsed by the circus Gale's interview has brought upon his prison and is the polar opposite of the violent nature of the two criminals. The warden wants them dead but with no fanfare, and the extreme of his belief makes him the final unsympathetic character thrown into the mix.
Fortunately, even as unlikable as the characters are (although our two stars do have their moments of carefully constructed sympathy), the performances are the cement that keeps Stone's ambitious, controlled mayhem together. I can't speak with any authority on the manner, but for audiences familiar with the jovial, goofy Woody Boyd of "Cheers," to see Woody Harrelson here as an unrepentant, raping, killing madman, surprise may be an understatement. Harrelson never overplays his role and at times seems outright sane compared to Downey Jr's gleeful Gale, even when casually discussing murder. Harrelson's partner in crime, Juliette Lewis is a wolf in sheep's clothing; physically unassuming, often childlike, but at many times more terrifying than Harrelson in her rapid anger, particularly at men. Under the hand of Stone, she delivers a very solid, memorable performance, particularly when compared to a similar role (in a somewhat similar film) a year prior in "Kalifornia." Last but not least, a final word of acknowledgement must be handed to the cameo-like appearance of the late Rodney Dangerfield as Mallory's abusive father. I dare say it's the most solidly memorable appearance in the entire film, taking Dangerfield's abrasive comic nature and infusing with sick, real perversion; the very definition of inspired casting.
Fifteen years later, "Natural Born Killers" remains a hallmark film, despite some unintended dilution by imitators. While it may no longer shock viewers with its violence, its surreal portrayal of shock journalism should serve as a wakeup call of what the media continues to do, on an hourly basis. It might be heavy handed in certain, but the end product is a film that does get better with age and multiple viewings.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on Warner's first release of Stone's original vision is a revelation compared to the antiquated Trimark/Artisan release from around 2000. I had previously owned that edition, which was non-anamorphic and very soft in overall detail. Fortunately, thanks to Warner moving all the bonus features to a second disc and giving the film a remaster, the end result is quite stunning. The 35mm scenes show the most clarity and vibrancy in color with no signs of edge enhancement or other digital tweaks. Other sections of the film look appropriately ugly, as they were intended, most notably the aged 8 and 16mm footage and scenes shot on video (for Mallory's childhood flashbacks). The result makes Stone's vision of chaos ring more clearly as the quick edits from one film stock to another reveal varying levels of clarity.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital English soundtrack faithfully reproduces the eclectic score as well as clearly presents the dialogue without distortion. The surrounds get the most workout when the more modern music selections blast forth, and in the film's extended finale set amidst the literal chaos of prison riot. A 2.0 Spanish track is presented as well as English, French, Spanish, Japanese and Portuguese subtitles.
Fortunately Warner has ported over nearly all the extras (a photo gallery and clip of Stone talking about the soundtrack are MIA) from the original, but long OOP director's cut from Trimark/Artisan. The extras (save the new introduction) all reside on disc two, ensuring the main feature doesn't suffer any undue compression artifacts.
Warner gives me a good surprise with a 44-page booklet housed in the case that isn't self-serving fluff. It opens with a brief written into by Stone, features some short cast bios, trivia about the film as well as it's music, and end's with comments written by Stone 15 years ago when the film was opening in theaters.
The pinnacle of the bonus features is Stone's relentless, dense commentary track. The man holds his own throughout the film's 122-minute runtime, talking straight into the end credits. The commentary track also serves as a reminder of why I always write my review of the film before listening to the commentary. Stone is thorough in discussing production aspects as well as story elements. If you were unsure of what something meant, chances are, he'll tell you here. I can't say that my interpretations were the same as his, but the beauty of a film is what each individual viewer takes away from it.
The three new special features are an introduction to the film by Stone. Stone is very eloquent in his introduction, but unfortunately, for new viewers spoils many plot points, including the finale, and the ones he doesn't spoil are spoiled by footage from the film displayed behind him. If you've never seen the movie before, don't watch this introduction.
"NBK Evolution: How Would It All Go Down Now?" is a roughly 25 minute, new retrospective featurette gathering Stone and some of the film's stars (including Lewis and Harrelson) as well as figures in modern media. It's a very engaging piece that shows that the insanity Stone committed to film is relatively mild compared to the sensationalism brought on by modern media, especially when it comes to Internet fame.
"Chaos Rising" is the original making of featurette from the old DVD that again features interviews from the cast and crew. It is much more comprehensive when it comes to discussing the film itself and the experiences of those involved.
A selection of deleted scenes with optional commentary by Stone show up. While they are all very interesting, at least one would have created a major plot point conflict had it been included, despite it being one of the most shocking scenes to come out of the entire production. An alternate ending is also included that answers a big question about a character that seemingly vanishes; it features an introduction by Stone.
Finally the film's trailer and a short segment from the Charlie Rose Show featuring Stone discussing many themes covered elsewhere on this disc rounds out the bonus features.
"Natural Born Killers" stands side by side with Platoon as the tremendous talent of Oliver Stone, highlighting his unflinching ability to tell a story and send a message, even if that story is ugly and vile, and that message is obvious, but society chooses to remain oblivious. As I said before, you can love or hate Stone, and at times I detest his work, but I have the utmost respect for an artist who sticks to his guns and doesn't backpedal in the interest of winning over the majority favor. I'd love to see the fiery Stone of this film, one day return to the directors seat to deliver us from his more recent, predestrian output. Warner finally delivers the definitive DVD edition of "Natural Born Killers" bringing over the best supplemental features from the previous, non-Warner release and giving the film a much-needed visual overhaul. Most importantly, this is Stone's original pre-MPAA cut, restoring around three minutes of numerous small edits that range from shots of graphic violence in the riot, to subliminal disturbing images that give viewers a complete look at the constant, upset mind frame of Mickey and Mallory. DVD Talk Collector Series.