CULT CORNER #39: Natural Born Killers (1994)

Oliver Stone takes a Quentin Tarantino script and runs with it in this biting media satire. 

Who made it?: Oliver Stone (Director/Co-Writer), David Veloz, Richard Rutowski (Co-Writers), Don Murphy, Clayton Townsend, Jane Hamsher (Producers), Warner Bros. Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Downey Jr.

Tagline: “A bold new film that takes a look at a country seduced by fame, obsessed by crime and consumed by the media.”

IMDb rating: 7.2/10.

The reality of filmmaking is that the original script rarely makes it intact on-screen. Be it the practicalities of the shoot, the creative choices of the director, or the attitude of the producers, many scripts are almost totally different when they get to the final cut. There isn’t much the writer can do about it, and in reality they aren’t far enough up the cinematic food chain to complain.

But in the case of Natural Born Killers, that writer was Quentin Tarantino. Infamously, he wasn’t pleased with Oliver Stone’s interpretation of his script. You can easily spot the Tarantino-esque ingredients of the plot. The romance between the two psychopaths has clear elements of True Romance (1993), and I hardly need to mention the excessive violence. Some of the dialogue is extremely snappy and catchy, and could easily be put in any stylised movie. But the influence of Stone shines through, and this is clearly his take on the material. His decision to seemingly glorify the violence of the pair (even though it’s painfully clear how ironic it is), caused a media sensation at the time. So is this a movie worth bothering with? Has Oliver ruined a potentially classic Tarantino movie? Or did he add maturity to a young filmmaker’s vision?

The plot follows Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis), two psychopathic killers who murder at random, and always leave someone to tell the tale. As they become media celebrities for their crimes, TV reporter Wayne Gayle (Robert Downey Jr.) tries to score an interview with them, and policeman Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) tries to hunt them down.

What strikes you most of all about Natural Born Killers is the hysteria of the direction. Shot choice, lighting, editing and performance switch in a heartbeat. The film uses a huge amount of different styles of media and switches from anime to sitcom to Super 8 effortlessly, and many more in-between. Whereas most movies contain around 700 shots, this had well over 3000 and it shows. This is a director with a clear energetic vision in mind, and for good or for bad, the movies certainly has a distinct, full-blown feel.

But it would be wrong to dismiss the movie as flash editing. You do get a real sense of the nastiness under the surface, from the cruelty of the natural world to the cynicism of television production. Just look at how they turn Rodney Dangerfield’s shtick into such a horrible pastiche of live studio audience comedy.

And when the movie does descend into bloodshed, it doesn’t hold back. Even though the violence is deliberately overblown, you understand the nature of the pair’s actions and no-one ever feels safe. It’s a painful movie; you feel every shooting, every stabbing. This is tied in with a bleak view of the modern world. One where humans sit at home, drinking coke and watching repeats. It is a place where love and creativity are foreign, spiritual concepts.

That said, I don’t know how successful Stone is with his take on violence and the media. It’s dated a great deal with the advent of social networking, and many of the styles and themes are more of a reflection of nineties culture rather than society as a whole. The constant cutting to black-and-white is a good example of this – whilst popular on 90s youth television, now it just feels odd. Take the scene below, a pastiche on serial killer shows; it just all goes on a bit too long and is too exhausting in its satire. It’s a just a bit too on the nose to really have an impact. Considering this was such a controversial movie when it first came out, with bannings in several countries and constant debates about the nature of its violence, now it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about.

A lot of scenes could easily be cut down, and when you really listen closely, a lot of the dialogue is not as meaningful as it sounds. When it’s just the Knoxs on-screen, Natural Born Killers screeches to a halt. Sometimes you just want it to calm down and tell the story. We can never know if a Tarantino original would’ve been better and focused on the characters more; there’s every chance it would’ve been just as indulgent. However, there’s some incredible stuff in the mix. The final prison riot is absolutely scintillating, and makes the last thirty minutes of the movie fly by. There are some amazing performances, too. Whilst Harrleson and Lewis are a bit overplayed in the main roles, Downey Jr. steals the film as sleazy reporter Gayle, and you can see his naughties superstardom on the horizon. And there is just something about the movie that gets under your skin; the tone is just aggressive enough to make it linger in your mind.

Natural Born Killers is the clash of two filmmakers with very strong styles, and whilst there are some similarities, the clash is rather shaky. A much tighter, more coherent movie is in there, and both directors have created better work. But despite my problems with it, I still find it a worthy entry in the canons of Stone and Tarantino.

Best Scene

The start perfectly sums up the movie, from the fast-paced use of different styles to the mix of intense and cartoonish violence.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Michael Madsen was initially considered for the role of Mickey, but Warner Bros. wanted somebody less intimidating, and with a softer persona, as they felt this might alleviate the brutality of the character somewhat.
  • Characters are loosely based on Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, a young Nebraska couple who in 1958 embarked on a mass murder spree across the Midwest that horrified the country. The characters in Terrence Malick’s Badlands are also loosely based on Starkweather and Fugate.
  • The editing of the film took eleven months. Eighteen different film formats are seen in the finished film.
  • Tom Sizemore’s character’s name is Jack Scagnetti. In Reservoir Dogs (also written by Quentin Tarantino), Vic Vega’s parole officer is named Seymour Scagnetti. Another Q.T. name: Mickey and Mallory kill a cop named Gerald Nash. In Reservoir Dogs, the cop who is tortured and murdered is named Marvin Nash. The actor who played Marvin, Kirk Baltz, plays Roger, a member of the TV crew in Natural Born Killers.
  • The colour green is used to indicate the sickness in Mickey’s mind and shows up prominently several times during the film: the key lime pie at the diner, the green neon at the drugstore, the green room in the prison.
  • When Mickey and Mallory are in the hotel room with the hostage, you can see clips of the chainsaw scene from Scarface and the tongue-biting scene from Midnight Express, both films written by Oliver Stone. You can also see clips from The Wild Bunch directed by Sam Peckinpah.
  • In late 1994 the film was banned from theatrical distribution in Ireland. However, the Irish Film Centre, which is a membership club and not subject to the same rules as public theaters, booked the film and had it scheduled to screen for a month-long run in early 1995. However the film censorship board threatened legal action if the film was shown and it was withdrawn.

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama giantcannibals.co.uk.

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