In August of 1994, Oliver Stone released his defining masterpiece, Natural Born Killers, all across theaters nationwide, to a chorus of controversy. I can remember my father taking me to see it on the big screen at the impressionable age of 14, with my love for film just starting to bud; the impact it made on me would be forever lasting. I had never seen anything remotely like it, and to this day, few films have come close to matching the raw, primal, explosive intensity that it offers. I can remember my mind literally expanding as the images seared themselves into my cerebral cortex, providing me with a glimpse of madness that I couldn’t fully comprehend. It was at that point when I truly realized what a filmmaker could be capable of, and despite the fact that many layers of the story went over my head during that initial screening, over the years through countless viewings, I’ve come to understand what Stone was saying with this anarchic vision of a society gone berserk. The impact it made on modern filmmaking and up-and-coming-filmmakers is as bold and as hugely important as the impact made by Pulp Fiction, with both films being co-authored by Quentin Tarantino, which should tell you something. And to think that Pulp Fiction would be released roughly 6 weeks later – truly mind-boggling!
Birthed by the indelible pen of Tarantino and masterfully shaped by Stone and his writing partners David Veloz and Richard Rutowski, Natural Born Killers is a crushing, beyond-angry satire of the media, our culture, television in general, and our collective desire for bloodlust. Taking aim at the then-just-emerging trend of reality TV and 24/7 tabloid crime reporting, Stone and his team utterly destroyed our country’s obsession with criminals and mass-murders, painting a damning portrait of things to come. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, in career topping performances, are Mickey and Mallory Knox, two mass-murdering lunatics (not without their own set of ideals, naturally) who cut a bloody swath across the country on a Bonnie and Clyde-styled crime spree, while a psychopathic cop, played with demonic glee by Tom Sizemore, gives pursuit. Once captured, Mickey and Mallory incite a prison riot inside of warden-from-hell Tommy Lee Jones’s maximum security facility, and kidnap a morally bankrupt Geraldo Rivera-esque crime-TV reporter named Wayne Gayle (the utterly amazing Robert Downey Jr. at his slimy, faux-Aussie best) as they videotape their insanely violent escape. That’s a general story description, but like the best of gonzo-outlaw cinema, the plot is just a clothesline for the unique artistic expression on the part of the filmmakers, and it’s in this film that Stone went truly nuts as a signature storyteller.
Working with the legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson, the film has a hyperventilating and excessively stylized visual aesthetic, implementing 35mm, 16mm, 8mm, black and white, animation, various lens distortions, off-key filters, and expressive lighting patterns that give the entire film a purposefully ragged vibe in an effort to create maximum visceral impact. The audience is kept off balance all throughout the movie, the pace hurtling forward like a freight train, with flashbacks, flash-forwards, flights of fancy, and moments of extreme bloody violence that all add up to what might be considered hallucinatory, fever-dream cinema. Hank Corwin and Brian Berdan’s in-your-face editing went for the jugular at all times, yet everything remained coherent amidst the narrative insanity. The soundtrack is also an all-timer, filled with offbeat and inspired musical cuts to go along with the aggressive rock and roll underpinnings. It’s easy to state that a film like Natural Born Killers will never, ever get made again; it was the textbook definition of “lightning in a bottle,” ahead of its time in so many ways, the perfect combination of a filmmaker armed with perfect subject matter and a society at the exact place in its history ready to be skewered into oblivion. As Roger Ebert said in one of his numerous articles on this most important motion picture, “Seeing this movie once is not enough.”