Now that Oliver Stone's 'director's cut' of his 1994 film Natural Born Killers is finally available to UK audiences (it has been available in the US since 1999), it is worth reconsidering two divisive matters that dogged the film upon its release; the violence issue and the authorship issue. The existence of the director's cut privileges Stone with name above the title status, but the discrepancies between script (available widely in published form) and film, alongside writer Quentin Tarantino's very public rejection of the finished work, are testament to the forceful public identity of each figure and their own perceived status as individual artists.
The transference of authorial power from Tarantino to Stone does not mean that the former's voice has been eliminated altogether. Instead, much of the film's confusion and ambivalence seem to stem directly from this clash of voices, from the simultaneous celebration and condemnation of both contemporary and vintage junk culture. In essence, Stone has claimed authorship of the film through a rigorous reshaping of the original concept, while Tarantino, buoyed by his own rapid rise to fully fledged auteur status, was merely insulted by the director's interpretation (one can almost imagine Tarantino, in his characteristic whine, saying 'look what he did to my movie).
Feeding Tarantino's tale of two lovers on the run through a multi-media shredder, Stone came up with what is perhaps the ultimate 'post-classical' Hollywood film. However, while Stone has been rightly credited with the film's stylistic bombast, some of these elements were already present and correct on the written page, as envisaged by Tarantino himself. At various junctures, the script calls for particular sequences to utilize 'outrageous process shots', '8mm home movie footage', '16mm colour' 'cinema vérité' and 'black and white video surveillance'. Out of such scattered descriptions, Stone developed an entire aesthetic, one that also consolidated his own narrative experiments in JFK (1991). Despite wholly appropriating multiple film stocks, rapid-fire cutting, narrative digressions and eclectic soundscapes, Stone seemed to have inverted the ironies of the Tarantino generation and sensed a sickness at its very heart.
Tarantino describes his lead characters Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) as 'a flower that could only bloom amidst a grotesque fast food culture', an epithet that might easily be applied to Tarantino himself. And herein lies a major conundrum for an avowedly 'serious' film-maker like Stone. Indeed, Stone's polemical, sledgehammer approach to the political aspects of his films seems to be the pure antithesis of the Tarantino aesthetic, wherein any engagement with social or political reality is secondary to a trash sensibility that privileges the allusive, the referential and the reflexive. These conflicting approaches indicate just how fragmented the auteur theory has become, yet Stone seems fully cognizant of the cult of the superstar director. This is embodied by the figure of Wayne Gayle (Robert Downey Jr), a reality TV superstar who fronts a show entitled 'American Maniacs' ('Hosted by Wayne Gale, Written by Wayne Gale, Produced and Directed by Wayne Gale'). He is, in effect, the total auteur yet a figure whom to all intents and purposes is depicted as a moron and hypocrite (characteristics that were already present in Tarantino's script).
The film never attempts to define its characters as approximations of 'real people', imagining them instead through a barrage of cross media reference points. While Tarantino's own films presented characters wholly co-existing in the trash media culture they inhabited, NBK merely drowns them in it. Furthermore, whereas Tarantino's characters have been defined largely by extended verbal exchanges, Mickey and Mallory are products of hyper-intense image phenomena. In NBK, both subjective and objective 'reality' become impossible ideals within the dense visual vocabulary, a schemata that approximates multiple, often contadictory points of view. This supplants Tarantino's much imitated verbal reference points with a stream of image information that seeks to test (in a manner that is extremely audacious for a major Hollywood film) the limits of the audience's cine/media literacy.
As is almost de rigueur today, Stone provides a fascinating audio commentary on the DVD of the director's cut. This provides an important counter weight to Killer Instinct, producer Jane Hamsher's own written account of the film's often bizarre production circumstances. However, one of the most startling passages of any DVD audio commentary occurs during that recorded by Stone for his Oscar winning Platoon (1986). In what is possibly a first for the commentary format, the director recalls the occasions in the Vietnam war where he and his comrades actually killed innocent people. While Stone remains vague about time and place, his words are perhaps enough to provide at least some biographical insight into the brutal, chaotic aesthetic he applied to NBK. Contrary to most of his film-making contemporaries, Stone has witnessed the grotesque brutalities of warfare, an experience that has directly influenced both his directorial personality and his need to document the socio-cultural history of his nation's recent past. However, it is this intimate, sometimes blinkered bind with much of his material that has often clouded Stone's judgement, seriously hindering his radical aspirations and sullying his claims to the pursuit of historical 'truth'.
Despite this, the point at which Stone's film is most definitely aligned with the Tarantino cult is in its status as one of the seminal violence texts of recent years. While Tarantino is divorced from the film due to his dissatisfaction with its evolution, he became embroiled in debates that demanded his own directorial efforts stand alongside NBK as prime constituents of a perceived explosion in screen violence. However, NBK saw Stone shed his role as historian, concerning himself with the malaise of contemporary media culture. As a consequence, this seemed to put him in direct conflict with NBK's writer and new crown prince of movie violence - indeed, one of the film's most contentious points is its dual address toward the flip ironies of post-modern movie carnage. The chief function of this director's cut is to increase it's violent detail and ambience, an approach that foregrounds the centrality of violence to an aesthetic of 'excess'. Nevertheless, Stephen Prince (in his book Savage Cinema) cannot seem to extricate Stone's film from the media culture it seeks to essay. Prince regrets NBK's 'post-modern' features because 'the realm of the social disappears and is overwhelmed by the realm of the image'. One might venture that the film actually spills over into the realm of the social through its negative appropriation by tabloid newspapers bent on linking it to a variety of real life murder cases. The supreme irony here of course is that the film itself became embroiled in the same kind of media circus it had so vividly envisaged.
So, the chief beneficiary of this director's cut is not a much-missed performance, a startling shot here and there or a long discussed, excised sequence; it is 'the violence'. This is a point that isn't lost on the film's UK distributors, who have adorned the publicity drive with prominent guarantees that they will finally be able to enjoy extended views of one major character's severed head and another's gaping hand wound. The major effect of the restoration of multiple censorship cuts (carried out at the behest of the Motion Picture Association of America) is to intensify the extent to which Stone had envisaged the screenplay as a deranged post-modern cartoon, wherein the considerable horror of its protagonists' murderous deeds have been reduced to one more surface signifier. These reinstated (often only fleeting) shots have the effect of exacerbating the film's visual absurdities, with various images of buck shot riddled bodies, severed fingers, bullet hole perforated hands and decapitated heads on poles (and much more besides) consequently removing it even further from any grounding in a perceived 'reality'. In fact, the deleted scenes included on the DVD indicate that Stone actually reduced much of the film's more outrageous violence. Particularly effective is an excised, chilling courtroom sequence in which Mickey, mounting his own defence, interrogates a terrified witness (Ashley Judd). The removal of the sequence eliminates the one moment in the film when the killers' victims are humanised beyond their status as despicable white trash scum. Alternately, the deleted sequence involving the steroid inflated wrestlers 'The Hun Brothers' merely adds to the film's gallery of grotesques. It may be coincidental, but both of these sequences were central set-pieces in Tarantino's script.
As Tarantino effectively disowned the film before it was even released, the screen violence buck was passed to Stone, who found himself slapped with several lawsuits around the world citing provocation to murder into the bargain. As Mark Kermode points out in his sleevenotes to the director's cut, none of these accusations have stuck, a situation that merely points to the idiotic, tabloid fuelled view of screen violence as a prime causal constituent in social unrest. In JFK, Stone repeatedly invoked the infamous Abraham Zapruder film of the president's assassination, pinpointing precisely the moment a perceived era of idealism and hope was literally exploded by a sniper's bullet. For Stone, that devastating moment seems to have ushered in the media-inflected political and cultural crises that inform his interpretation of Tarantino's script. As if in response to the grainy, imperfect frames of Zapruder's film, NBK presents an exploding head as an absurd splatter effect, cross cut with point of view shots from the position of a speeding bullet.
While Tarantino progressed rapidly from independent cult status to the mainstream, the furore over Stone's film served to obscure the fact that he had managed smuggle a $40 million experiment into the multiplexes (Film Comment pointed out that avant-garde legend Stan Brakhage is a fan of the film). The closing images of then recent incidents such as the OJ Simpson trial, the Rodney King beating and the Waco tragedy confirm Stone's desire to contextualize his film within the socio-media culture at large. However, what the film is actually saying about this is never absolutely clear. Perhaps the crucial moment comes when Mickey and Mallory prepare to shoot a hostage after their dramatic prison break. Lining up the hapless individual against a tree, Mickey declares that their imminent action represents 'a statement… I'm just not 100% sure what it actually is'. This would provide the perfect promotional tagline for the film. As a seminal work of the 1990s, it both exemplifies and transcends the state of contemporary Hollywood, full of sound and fury, signifying something or other. Or whatever...
Reviewed by Neil Jackson
Reader comments about Natural Born Killers
Daniel Pinder (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes:
I liked Oliver Stone's work until I saw this film. I think that the screenplay, which I believe was by Quentin Tarrintino (don't know if this is the correct spelling), did not suit Stone's usual style - for example, seen in the film: Born on the fourth of July. I thought the protagonists - Mickey and Mallory - were the most annoying characters to ever appear in film. In my opinion, anyone who claims this film to be art is unquestionably wrong!
Lee (Email address withheld) writes:
I am a forty year old single parent who returned to college to complete a teaching degree. If you knew me, I am probably the last person who could in any way relate to this movie at all. But...something about this movie caught my attention. It wasn't the message, the violence, none of those things, but it caught my attention.
The actor who played Mickey was inspiring. His acting skills went beyond acting. It didn't surprise me at all when I read an article where he stated "This could have been my life". You could see it in him, in his acting. There was just that something there in him that made this character literally come to life. Considering the character of Mickey in this movie, I can't think of very many actors who could have pulled this part off so completely. It says it all when the cutting edge is "This could have been my life" and for this actor it wasn't!
Niels Strubbe (Email address withheld) writes:
Un-be-fucking-lie-ve-ble, Mickey is my own personal Jesus christ!
I say goddamn what rush! This movie is a masterpiece!
cookie (Email address withheld) writes:
thanks to the hysteria over movie violence that infested the 90's like a cancer i feel this feel film was judged too harshly. i am a HUGE tarantino fan but if Stone had stuck to his script (which i have read) it's doubtful the film would be as notorious as it it now.
what oliver stone created was without doubt one of THE most important films ever made, and the storm that surrounded the films release did resemble the storm around mickey and mallory in the film.
there is no doubt that tarantino is talented but if NBK can come from a disjointed flashback-riddled script stone should be proud of what he acheived.
Stephanie (email@example.com) writes:
A suberb film..was shown to us in school by our lecturer. Its superb not because of the violence in it, but the reality of everything in the movie. Watching it, i realised how REAL the characters were and how much i cld identify with them. At the end of the day, it doesn't mean i'm gonna condone violence or start on a killing spree. However, the movie did send alot of us thinking..and as far as i'm concerned, it was a masterpiece..i'm not sure why though, but that alone shows that the director was superb in creating NAturAL BoRn KiLLers.
Daniel Merrit (Email address withheld) writes:
I love this movie it has inspired me so much! i want to live my life in exactly the way mickey does. The prison scene really did it for me
Scott P. [P is for Proactive] (Email address withheld) writes:
There is a ting about something in the air that exists with few film's. This is one. The mysterious element that surrounds films due to counter productive rejection which only seems to invoke more publicity, and thus succes. Violence in films dosn't bother me. The violence in real life is worse because it is real. So with all the publicity of this film, I had to see it. The idea of Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone collaberating is bizzare, but bearable. This is a good film, it's well made and well acted. The story is refreshing and the originality is a save. However it's the subtle nod to the ridicolousness of the usually cliched, tree's along the road, mowing the lawn in the sun, the paperboy, mom's apple pie style portrayal of American life which is most endearing. If you can't see this in the film, you simply aren't looking hard enough. Not brilliant, but refreshing enough to be a favourite.
James Shelley (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes:
This film does not reflect violence in a realsist sense. The conventions that accompany the violence trigger a personal response to it that falls out of the realms of reality. The cartoon sequences represent a type of violence without consiquence. Think "Tom and Jerry", and to a further extent "The Simpsons" parody "Itchy and Scratchy". This is not the type of violence we take seriously, its comic book violence.
Every violent scene is designed on a comic book style basis. The impossible camera angles such as a point of view shot of a fired bullet aswell as the transitions of colour and lighting mean that the scene is in no way realist. I think its safe to say the draw of this film is the characters. Alot of you seem to make it clear you can relate to them and the reason is because the charcters are natural, Naturlism of life. "Naturalistic writers regard human behaviour as controlled by instinct, emotion, or social and economic conditions, and reject free will, adopting instead, in large measure, the biological determinism of Charles Darwin and the economic determinism of Karl Marx." (Encarta) Auteur of this movie has clearly shown Mickey and Mallorey to these guidelines. And this is why we can realte so well to film.
Deniel Merrit's sister (NBK@yahoo.com) writes:
I wouldn't agree with you Daniel Marriet. If you live like Mickey, you'd be dead. But that's your choice. I'm just giving a sister advice. Behave or else.
preethi, india (Email address withheld) writes:
ohh its a masterpiece...!not cos of the violence, but cos of the truth that has been concieved so very well in this movie (esp part where mickey is interviewed).this is the best movie ever happened.
I sometimes wonder, how could a character suit so well, that it has with Mickey..he is in his best in this movie...Thanks to Stone!
Kerry Tynan Fraser (Email address withheld) writes:
Mr. Tarantino and Mr. Stone must of had different ideas for where this film was going to go. If I watched it correctly, Stone seems to be arguing for a McLuhan-heavy universe where image is more important than text, but one that is still heavily moral and the media are to blame for everything wrong with the world, and Tarantino is arguing straight Nietzsche, which is clear in Kill Bill pt. 2.
amalia madalina (email@example.com) writes:
Wow! Absolutely great. please excuse me but I don't speak english very well, anyway I hope u understand me.
This is the best movie I ever seen.I don't know why I like it but I know I like it. I like the characters, Mickey and Mallory and their love, the way they love eachother. I would love to have a husband like Mickey, I know it's sounds funny or even freaky but it's seems that Mickey was fascinated by Mallory, he would give his life for Mallory, he loved her so much and their love was so pure...I cryed at this movie a lot, more than ever, and for me, M&M are the perfect couple.
I understand that Q.Tarantino made the original script, i even read it, His script was more an satire. i also think that O.Stone made a great job. I love this movie even if some of my friends consider me weird because i like it. i like it because i understand it. those who want to talk with me about this or another GOOD movie please send me an mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rachel (email@example.com) writes:
This film is a masterpiece because it shows how obsessed our society is with violence. Stone shows us how Mickey and Mallory go on this killing spree and leaves one person alive to tell their story. By leaving one person alive, Stone shows his audience that Mickey and Mallory are wanting to be famous. Gale, Scagnetti, and Warden McClusky all wish to excell in their jobs and to also become famous. Stone makes fun of the media and its influences, and if you didn't get that, then your stupid!!
miguel tipacti (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes:
think this movie could be more better if eliminate the little moments of ironic or humour , the rest is very good.
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