Natural Born Killers (1994)
Mass murderers Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis are glorified by TV star Robert Downey, Jr., 27 December 2014
What with its rapid juxtaposition of all sorts of visual techniques and what with an immense amount of content in its images, "Natural Born Killers" comes across as a work of genius and inspiration. The story, written by Quentin Tarentino, is relatively simple. The screenplay had to be far, far more complicated, and/or the planning of how to film the eventually-edited product must have been very challenging. The result is more than one can digest with one viewing. After 49 minutes, I took a break. This was shortly before the story took a major dramatic turn anyway with the arrest of killers Harrelson and Lewis by the detective Tom Sizemore.
The film might some day be viewed as a brilliant dissection of American proclivities that have always been present in American life and culture, but that began to emerge more clearly in the 1990s. These include the excessive use of violence, the glorification of violence, the media attachment to stories of violence, and the fascination with violence. They include the role of the media in promoting this culture. They include a cultural and philosophical failure to mount a cogent defense against the culture of violence. In the movie, the major institutions that represent government and the justice system are police and the prison system. In both cases, they are shown as themselves enmeshed in the violence and completely unable to articulate any response other than force to the philosophy of murder articulated by Harrelson. We are being shown a decadent culture that has no moorings and is open to the idea that Fate rules the universe, that survival of the most aggressive is the rule even among human beings, that the family is so corrupt that it is producing murderers, and that the media figures no longer can tell the difference between their shows and real life. "Natural Born Killers" refers to us Americans, and its two hero-killers who eventually obtain the American Dream represent the tendencies in us. When they kill stereotypes, they represent the hidden prejudices of Americans. The movie exposes our many depraved and decadent tendencies that are driving the country downwards culturally. The movie has to be seen as containing satirical metaphors of larger tendencies in American life in order to be understood and appreciated.
A long string of murders doesnít stop the pair from achieving their version of the American dream, including a nuclear family. Indeed, their spree is shown as the foundation of their attainment. Does this not reflect to some extent the development of this continent? Harrelson even kills an Indian because he has had a bad dream of his childhood. Each major character we see has a dream in this story, including the demented prison warden, Tommy Lee Jones, who seems virtually a character from the pages of Dr. Strangelove. And each dream is built around violence. In order to achieve his dream, the TV host Downey goes completely over to the violent side. He becomes the man he is interviewing. In doing so he loses touch with the reality of who and what that man is and what heís capable of.
This movie has no heroes. No one is spared. This is unusual in a movie but itís becoming less unusual. This means that we are not being told a story in the usual way of entertainment movies. We are not as viewers being asked to identify with a protagonist or view him or her sympathetically. We are being immersed instead in a satiric tragedy of sorts in which we are unspoken or implicit targets along with the institutions being skewered, because these after all are our institutions.
"Natural Born Killers" doesnít glorify violence. It does not promote violence. There are numerous movies that have much more blood, perverted violence, sex and profanity. They are accepted as entertainment. This screenplay delves more than is typical into the motivations of its characters. It at least tries to go beneath the surface. There is no exploitation of violence here for the sake of ticket sales. It is unfair to criticize Oliver Stone for hypocrisy, i.e., for criticizing media while being in the media. This movie is not the mainstream media. It is not reality television. Stoneís movie is better described as belonging to alternative media, and alternative media are opposed to mainstream media. Letís face it, he wanted to communicate and heís a moviemaker. How else could he send his messages?
He can be criticized on artistic grounds as being too heavy-handed, or as having overdone the satire. Thatís a matter of critical judgment, and I think such a criticism has some merit. But I think that the creativity of the techniques used and the boldness of the screenplay more than compensate for its occasional over-reaching.