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'Natural Born Killers' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 26, 1994

In interviews, Oliver Stone has said that he made his new film, "Natural Born Killers," as a way of taking a break from the heavy lifting of his more serious recent work. But this wild, chaotic look at the glamorization of violence in America plays like anything but a filmmaker's lark.

Instead, "Natural Born Killers" is Stone, the bad-boy outsider, at full throttle. In telling the lurid story of mass-murdering lovebirds Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), Stone uses the movie screen as a toxic waste dump for all the poisons in our culture. If America is a party, with its mindless sitcoms, pseudo-newscasts and tabloid sensationalism, Stone crashes it and pukes in the punch bowl. It's a purgative work, but one that does Stone more good than it does us.

With its panicked collaging of visual styles, its drunken camera gyrations and its dislocated music video editing, the movie is a bold assault on the senses and on the polite conventions of the Hollywood status quo. This is a picture unlike any other coming out of the film industry at the moment. As usual with Stone, this sort of daring is a mixed blessing. Though "Killers" is a cartoon-style black comedy, the laughs tend to come in the wrong places, and strike out at the audience in a way that sometimes leaves viewers sitting in stunned silence.

There's a story line, of sorts: Mickey, an escaped criminal, meets Mallory, who is sexually terrorized by her slobbering father (Rodney Dangerfield). After first killing Mallory's parents, Stone's Manson-family Romeo and Juliette go on a three-month crime spree that ends with a death toll of 52 after the couple are caught robbing a drugstore.

By this time, these twisted, amoral twits have been turned into national celebrities by Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), the bombastic host of a tabloid news show called "American Maniacs." After their capture, their trial makes them even bigger stars--the grunge Bonnie and Clyde.

After Mickey and Mallory are sent to jail, "Natural Born Killers" changes from a mythic road movie into a Boschian prison picture, and Stone seems to lose his symbolic footing. Behind bars, Mickey is brutalized by a sadistic warden (played with cartoon relish by Tommy Lee Jones), who appears to have sprung, full blown, out of one of Stone's "Midnight Express" flashbacks.

The events of this third act revolve around an interview with Mickey that Gale will broadcast live from inside the prison on Super Bowl Sunday. Spouting sage aphorisms about being America's shadow, Mickey makes his case for murder as an extension of the normal brutality of the natural world.

Urged on by Mickey's speech, the inmates at the prison riot, allowing Mickey to engineer a reunion with Mallory, who is being sexually assaulted by a deranged expert on mass murderers (Tom Sizemore) in her cell on the other side of the jail.

In Stone's nightmare fantasy, there is no justice, no cause and effect; the good suffer and the wicked go unpunished.

Unlike the talk show host Gale, Stone isn't an empty sensationalist. He's a moralist, a truth-teller. He wants to illuminate us and set things right. This passion and urgency in his filmmaking voice is one of the primary reasons that he can't simply be dismissed as an overbearing village crank. Stone isn't just pushing hot buttons for the fun of seeing his audience squirm. For him, the atrocities showcased in "Natural Born Killers" are symptoms of a deep soul-sickness; the film's images are like the scrambled ravings of a national mind in searing pain.

The main problem with "Killers," though, is that it degenerates into the very thing it criticizes. Taken from an original story by Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction") and expanded by Stone, David Veloz and Richard Rutowski, "Killers" is intended as a gonzo critique of the mass media and, by extension, of the bloodthirsty legions of couch potatoes whose prurient taste guarantees that the garbage rises to the top of the charts. But the film doesn't make it as a piece of social criticism. Primarily this is because the movie's jittery, psychedelic style is so obviously a kick for Stone to orchestrate. Bloody, pulpy excess is his thing; it's what he does best.

His cast here seems to have been willing accomplices, though it's debatable whether they were acting in their own best interests. All the actors are working here in caricature, but Harrelson's Maileresque criminal super-hero has some genuine antiheroic clout. On the other hand, Lewis's hair-twirling baby doll shtick is superficial and generic. It's all the actress does anymore, and she's not doing it better.

Satire requires a certain cool detachment, and Stone's sensibility is white-hot and personal. As much as he'd like us to believe that his camera is turned outward on the culture, it's vividly clear that he can't resist turning it inward on himself. This wouldn't be so troublesome if Stone didn't confuse the public and the private. Our culture may be drifting toward the sort of calamity that Stone describes in "Natural Born Killers," but the hysteria he depicts seems to come from within him. His soul is in turmoil and so he keeps trying to convince us that we're sick.

"Natural Born Killers" is rated R for violence, sex, language and anything else one might imagine.

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