Why It Works: Natural Born Killers
Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.
With SNOWDEN hitting theaters this weekend (you can read our review here), Oliver Stone is bringing us another of his signature paranoia-laden biopics (making Edward Snowden part of a very odd club which includes John F. Kennedy, Jim Morrison, Richard Nixon, Alexander the Great, and George W. Bush). While SNOWDEN is one of Stone's more conventional works, this week we're looking at perhaps the most unconventional, deranged film of the filmmaker's career. NATURAL BORN KILLERS throws traditional lighting, editing, and cinematography out the window, teaches an uncomfortable lesson about the media, and features a cast of deplorable characters, the least wretched of whom happen to be mass murderers. Here's why it works:
WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:
With PULP FICTION, THE BOONDOCK SAINTS, and GOODFELLAS, Why It Works has looked at bad guys as protagonists before, but there's always been either a sense of "killing for good" or the audience being spared actually seeing the worst of it. Such is not the case with Mickey and Mallory Knox. Right from the first scene of the film, we see the duo take down a couple of redneck assholes (which we maybe don't mind so much)- and then mow down any bystanders, save for one to tell the story, of course. How on earth can we get behind these characters after seeing them happily kill innocent people? Perhaps the most effective choice Stone makes to this effect is by presenting the film as an almost cartoonish comedy. When we see a bullet or knife spin in first person slow motion black and white at a victim while opera music plays, we're more likely to laugh than consider the implications of what is happening. If nothing seems real, then we're free to be entertained rather than disturbed (a circumstance which will reveal itself to be the major theme of the film). Juxtaposed against the unreality of Stone's world is Mickey and Mallory's deep, passionate, and problematic relationship which, along with their troubling backstories, actually allows us to feel some sympathy for the homicidal couple. Adding to the main cast are the slimy television personality Wayne Gale, the sadistic, Mallory-obsessed detective Jack Scagnetti, and the unstable tyrant Warden Dwight McClusky, all of whom give us wonderfully disgusting foils to Mickey and Mallory and almost make them seem good by comparison.
Warden McClusky feels like a precursor to Tommy Lee Jones' Two-Face.
WHY WE CARE:
Oliver Stone considers NATURAL BORN KILLERS to be his road movie, but road movies usually have a destination in mind (and don't feature the leads locked in jail cells for the second half of the film). Among many of the ways Mickey and Mallory are unlike traditional protagonists is the fact that they don't ever seem to have a particular goal beyond the immediate moment. While this would normally result in a film feeling tedious and meandering, NATURAL BORN KILLERS barrels ahead with such intensity that we barely have time to worry about silly things like plot and objective. Instead, Stone and company change the story and scenery every few scenes minutes, introducing a new theme and situation to keep us on our toes. Our introduction to Mickey and Mallory bleeds into a flashback of how they met and began their reign of terror. Their exploits fuel Wayne Gale and the media's glorification and Jack Scagnetti's investigation of the pair. After a flirtation with Native American spirituality goes astray, the Knoxes are arrested and brought into the clutches of Warden McClusky. Finally, Wayne's interview of Mickey and Jack's ill-advised visit to Mallory's cell result in a full-scale prison riot, some grisly deaths, and Mickey and Mallory's triumphant escape.
Robert Downey Jr.'s accent came from the actor spending time with Australian shock jock Steve Dunleavy in preparation for the role.
WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:
With both TRUE ROMANCE and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, Quentin Tarantino wrote scripts with decidedly dark endings which were then changed by the films' directors. NATURAL BORN KILLERS originally ended with Mickey and Mallory's guardian angel Owen declaring himself as being "from the fire" and killing the two in the film's final moments. While this would seem to be the more logical ending from a screenwriting 101 point of view- we've had our fun but these characters are monsters and need to be punished- the revised "happier" ending actually tells a darker and more poignant story. For as much as NATURAL BORN KILLERS is the story Mickey and Mallory Knox, it's also a story of the media that surrounds them. From the constant presence of projected or televised imagery to interviews depicting how the country has lionized the Knoxes to every single major character's obsession with fame and recognition, the real evil here is not the actions of two fictional mass murderers but rather our own tendency to spotlight and glorify the ugliness in the world. Mickey and Mallory are left alive not to give us a happy ending but to tell us that we as a culture are responsible for giving them life in the first place.
"You know her, you love her, you cannot f*cking live without her... Mallory Knox."
WHY WE REMEMBER:
NATURAL BORN KILLERS is the Oliver Stone film of Oliver Stone films. The director has always had a unique and stylized eye, but NATURAL BORN KILLERS is some next-level shit. From projections and green screens to scenes switching between black and white, color, and even animation seemingly at random to the usage of several different camera types to gorgeous lighting and cinematography to wonderfully garish costume design to some of the most insane editing and imagery ever seen in a major motion picture, Oliver Stone truly delivers a one of a kind film, even within his own oeuvre. Quentin Tarantino's original story and screenplay, adapted by Richard Rutowski, Oliver Stone, and David Veloz tells a story as funny and entertaining as it is haunting, dark, and poignant. The film's soundtrack is appropriately disparate and chaotic, weighing heavily on Nine Inch Nails and Leonard Cohen but ranging from the likes of Patsy Cline and the Shangri-Las to Peter Gabriel and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Dr. Dre and Tha Dogg Pound to L7, Jane's Addiction, Rage Against The Machine, and Marilyn Manson. Finally, Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, and Tom Sizemore all give stellar performances at once nuanced and unbridled (not to mention Rodney Dangerfield's brilliantly horrifying performance as Mallory's father). Admittedly, it's been some time since Oliver Stone has made a truly great, widely celebrated film, but there's no question the director will always be challenging, contentious, and worth keeping an eye on.
Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!
If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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