Natural Born Killers (1994)

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I was opposed to seeing this film for the longest time. As an enormous Quentin Tarantino fan, I have been reluctant to watch this film, because the idea that someone would take a script that the young, idealistic genius wrote and completely mangled it beyond recognition was a travesty, and Tarantino himself certainly agreed, because he has distanced himself from this film as much as possible. However, I did give into temptation and I did watch it, and it feels almost disrespectful to say that I really did like it quite a bit.

Oliver Stone has a reputation for being quite an intense director, but it has been difficult for me to ever truly one any of his films. This was perhaps the first time I ever was actively captivated by an Oliver Stone film, mainly because of how uncharacteristic this film is for Stone. It is filled with humour, lots of offbeat quirks and doesn’t feel overly dramatic or preachy. It feels like Stone was trying to make his own version of Scarface (which he wrote), in the way that this film shows terrible, malicious people in an exaggerated, almost overly likable manner, which I think is absolutely brilliant and what makes Natural Born Killers quite a great film.

Now Natural Born Killers is more divisive than any of Quentin Tarantino’s films, and that is because it is controversial in a way that Tarantino’s films aren’t. This film is equally as violent as any of Tarantino’s films, maybe even less violent somewhat. What makes Natural Born Killers so controversial is that the level of violence is glorified to the point where it becomes attractive. Many people blame Tarantino’s films for being far too violent and making violence seem normal and a part of life. However, if you look at any of his films, you will see that violence is indeed a major part of his repertoire, but violence is committed by people with a reason, and that reason is normally because they are either vengeful or deranged, or both. Tarantino actually takes quite a contrarian stance towards violence, as it is clear that he doesn’t think violence is indeed anything other than a tool used by deranged people in society. There has never been a character in a Tarantino film that has innocently picked up a weapon and caused violence to happen. That was the problem with Natural Born Killers – our two protagonists are viewed as being terrible, malicious, disgusting people that are not given a motive to commit the atrocities that they do, and Stone tries to glorify their actions without giving them sufficient charm to be fully deranged, nor enough redemptive qualities to be heroic.

I can only imagine what Tarantino himself would’ve done with this film, because what would occur would no doubt be an absolute masterpiece. The bones of a brilliant film lie throughout Natural Born Killers. As a satire of media, it is absolutely fantastic. As someone who is critical of the mass media, this film really has a gritty, sardonic sense of humour. Robert Downey Jr. is absolutely fantastic as a vicious, ratings-hungry Australian reporter who will do anything to get even an inch of acclaim. It has a notoriously nasty stance towards the mass media, which is refreshing, especially considering how it has taken over every aspect of our everyday lives. One can only fantasize with how Tarantino would’ve handled this material.

One of the best parts about this film was that regardless of how terrible and cruel the main characters were, the performances were terrific. Woody Harrelson was absolutely delightful here, and considering that prior to this, he was typecast as the lovable Woody in Cheers, which made his casting here all the more genius. Natural Born Killers was his springboard to the maniacal, tough-guy characters that have dominated his career since. Juliette Lewis is outrageously great here as Mallory, the cold and devious female half of the duo. The chemistry between the leads is wonderful, and even though they go around killing people for fun, the two actors bring their characters to the point where they are almost incredibly likable and endearing. Tommy Lee Jones, who shows up for the incredible third act, is fantastic and hilarious as the malicious prison warden. It is a small part, but quite possibly is the one performance where Jones allows himself to have a small amount of fun (I will refuse to recognize the existence of Batman Forever).

The music in Natural Born Killers is fantastic, and the filmmaking is unique and incredible. While there were times where the film could’ve chosen to be slightly less experimental and stick to one style, it did create a panoply of diverse filmmaking techniques, and it is probably Stone’s most creative film, in regards to editing and cinematography (it should be no surprise to anyone that the photography in this film was done by Robert Richardson, the visionary responsible for many striking images in films, such as, ironically, Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds, his two most beautiful and creative films). Stone really did his very best to make a truly unique film, and he most certainly succeeded.

Natural Born Killers is indeed a unique and entertaining film. It is highly flawed, and makes some statements that I wish weren’t made, or were made in such a way that they weren’t so polarizing. The performances are great, it has a brilliant soundtrack and it looks beautiful. It is surely going to remain a divisive film, and it will never be seen as the masterpiece that could’ve come from Tarantino’s direction, but it is a pretty great cult film, and that’s the way it should be.

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