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By Alan Scherstuhl
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Those who have followed Oliver Stone's bombastic career know that the reckless loudmouth in him usually gets the best of the deep thinker. Every intriguing conspiracy theory in JFK seemed to be inundated by a flood of bilge. Every pointed comment about the greed of the Eighties in Wall Street got overrun by excess. In his three Vietnam movies--Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven and Earth--Stone's blunt depictions of hell were outranked by his vast self-absorption.
Natural Born Killers lengthens that string, but it's full of fascinations. A nightmare satire on (what else?) American violence, as seen through the eyes of two moonstruck serial killers and the lens of a trash-TV reporter, it is probably destined to be Stone's most "controversial" film yet--another ticket to the op-ed pages and the talk shows. It may also be the most radical Hollywood studio movie of the past twenty years--a wild, all-out style experiment through which Stone probably imagines he has found his true voice at last. Hey, hasn't he been comparing himself lately to Eisenstein, Bunuel and Kubrick?
Stone's subject matter is no more original than usual. The haunted-spree-killers-in-love theme goes back to the crime dramas of the Thirties, to Bonnie and Clyde, to Badlands, to last year's Kalifornia. And unless it comes as news to you that murderous lunatics like Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer shouldn't be transformed into pseudo-celebrities by the mass media, that O.J. is no hero, or that cop reality shows are junk food for the brain, you won't find a single new idea in Stone's entire grandiose scheme.
Quentin Tarantino, the director of Reservoir Dogs and the upcoming Pulp Fiction, wrote the original story but has disassociated himself from the film. And cult director John Waters upstaged Stone earlier this year with a lively black comedy called Serial Mom, featuring Kathleen Turner as a perky suburban housewife who becomes a media darling after she starts knocking off the neighbors.
What you will find in Natural Born Killers ("NBK" to its intimates) is a method of telling the story that's new--at least to Stone and to Warner Bros. Stone bombards the screen with jittery, off-kilter bits of film in black-and-white and color, with scraps of survival-of-the-fittest documentaries, mock Super-8 home movies, old newsreels of Hitler and Stalin back-projected onto motel windows, and blurry snippets of videotape--all cut together, with an equally complex soundtrack, into a hallucinatory spectacle that means to show us the disturbed mindscapes of the protagonists as well as their most dastardly public acts.
Mickey and Mallory (beefy Woody Harrelson and the waif Juliette Lewis, who has an authentically crazy look in her eyes) are another pair of fated lovers who must maim and kill and move on. "It's time to grow up," Mickey tells his love. "We got the road to hell in front of us." These are the Nineties, so it leads the predators to a tabloid show called American Maniacs, hosted by a Robin Leach-like vulture played by Robert Downey Jr. He makes them the star attractions, and they love it. They're scarred by abusive childhoods, they've both overdosed on TV, cartoon superheroes and violence, so the only thing they enjoy more than killing is telling the camera about it.
Mickey and Mallory are, in fact, pure caricatures of contemporary life in America--so far gone that Mickey recalls his first meeting with Mallory as a TV sitcom studded with parental viciousness and a grotesque laugh track.
Some may find Stone's relentless technical gimcracks annoying, but they serve a couple of purposes here. First, this hyperactive hail of images and sounds (dialogue drifts into song, song into scream, scream into dialogue) may be the only vehicle capable of accommodating all the filmmaker's pontifications and poses, his unruly energies and self-indulgences, his tireless drive to get at the Truth. The exhausting clash of textures, time frames and points of view also expresses Mickey's and Mallory's ever-shifting, overloaded states of mind. Rage gives way to fear, which flashes into passion, which peters out into fatalism, which evaporates into nihilism. Then the unpredictable cycle starts all over again.
If NBK has one great strength, it is the way it expresses the blown circuitry, short attention span and misguided obsessions of a culture that's been misled by demons. If it has a second strength (I think it does), it's Stone's biting satire of the same issues: He may try to exempt himself from the societal indictments he's handing down, but he's never been funnier while deflating sacred cows like the prison system and common idiocies like begging autographs from a mass murderer. The Downey TV character, meanwhile, is a media predator judged more evil than the killers themselves--a slightly surreal version of Geraldo or Donahue. Tommy Lee Jones pops up as a vicious prison warden who's not in charge of anything, as it turns out. Tom Sizemore is the maverick cop with the criminal mind who feasts on blood, too. Like Mickey and Mallory, they are all caricatures, which is the only thing they could be.
NBK is already being compared to A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick's cunning vision of a future gone mad with violence. But Oliver Stone can never resist hitting us over the head himself: The self-proclaimed renegade of the movie industry may have escaped the 1960s, at least momentarily, but he has not escaped the Sixties obsession with force-feeding his personal moral lessons to the world, or the grand delusion that he's the first man on the moon, idea-wise.
Natural Born Killers may be his most interesting film in years--especially in terms of style--but the loudmouth in Stone is still smacking the thinker upside the head. The impact can sound pretty hollow.
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