Natural Born Killers, 1994.
Directed by Oliver Stone.
Starring Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Natural Born Killers (1994) was made by director Oliver Stone, who was then famous for making violent uncompromising mainstream films. This film is about Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) a poor white trash couple who go on a killing spree and are subsequently glorified by the media. Like Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Oliver Stone employed many cinematic tricks to deliver his message. These included colour/black & white film, back projection, stock footage, slow/fast motion, animation and a pounding contemporary soundtrack. Also, like A Clockwork Orange the film would be attacked by a frenzied media.
The film features violence from the outset in which Mickey and Mallory kill the staff and customers in a diner. However, the media satire in the film is often hilarious. The flashback to Mallory’s home life is executed like a twisted sitcom complete with laughter track. Mallory is molested by an abusive father and unprotected by a weak and indifferent mother. Mickey is sent to prison for petty theft but manages to escape. The pair then kill Mallory’s parents before embarking on their killing spree. The film then features a mock reality show called ‘American Maniacs’ about serial killers, hosted by sleazy reporter Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jnr). Gale doesn’t care as much about the victims of the serial killers as he does about making entertaining shows and getting high ratings. When the police catch up with Mickey and Mallory, they spend a year in prison before Mickey is asked to appear on American Maniacs. During the broadcast a prison riot breaks out enabling Mickey and Mallory to escape, they take Wayne with them but later kill him.
To avoid an NC-17 rating in America, 150 cuts were made to the violent scenes to gain an R rating. Many of these excised scenes were from the prison riot sequence. This was the version which was then given an 18 certificate by the British Board of Film Classification. However before the film was released, it was attacked by the press (tabloids and broadsheets) for inciting copycat crimes in America and France. After it was decided that there were no links between the film and the crimes that had been committed, the film was released.
After receiving a video certificate in 1996, the film was again withheld – this time by its distributor Warner Brothers, who felt it was inappropriate since the release coincided with a national tragedy, the Dunblane Massacre, in which a group of schoolchildren and a teacher were killed by a gunman. The film was eventually released onto video in 2001 despite having been shown on terrestrial television (Channel 5) in 1997. A director’s cut of the film which reinstated many of the violent scenes was shown on the Film Four cable channel in 2001. This version was then released onto video/DVD in 2002.
Now that the furore over Natural Born Killers has abated, it’s difficult to see what all the fuss was about. The relentless style of the film makes the violence bearable, in fact it is almost cartoon like. The fast pace results in the violence passing swiftly, so audiences don’t find it excruciating. The sensationalist newspaper and magazine headlines in the film about the serial killers are very accurate in the way they parody the actual media’s trivializing of sensitive issues. The film’s message is very clear especially since it ends with a montage of actual news stories which don’t seem out of place with the artifice of the film. Years after its release, newspapers and magazines are pandering to a celebrity obsessed culture and our TV schedules are full of innumerable exploitative reality shows.
Santosh Sandhu graduated with a Masters degree in film from the University of Bedfordshire and wrote the short film ‘The Volunteers’.