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'Natural Born Killers' (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 26, 1994

One day, in a weird Oliver Stone movie, precocious teenager Juliette Lewis is rescued from her sexually abusive father (Rodney Dangerfield) by all-American serial-killer Woody Harrelson. After drowning Dangerfield in the fish tank and blowing Lewis's mother away upstairs, the soon-to-be lovers embark on a killing spree through the heartland, deep-sixing all who cross their path and charming America in the bargain. After the two are thrown into the slammer, Harrelson's live television interview with journalist Robert Downey Jr. (as well as subsequent violent events) assures the demonic couple legendary notoriety for at least a few months.

Welcome to "Natural Born Killers," Stone's empty, manic meditation on society's glorification of violence and the ugly heroes it loves to hate. Based on a story by hip gore-meister Quentin Tarantino, the movie is a show-off's tour de force, unleashing a near-stroboscopic battery of flashbacks, flash forwards, rear screen projection and all kinds of film treatments--from animation to video to Super 8mm. It switches from color to black-and-white and back again--often in the same scene. Harrelson's face may suddenly metamorphose into a quasi-minotaur, or he may appear in red-lit close up, drenched in blood. Maybe a snake will weave toward you in black and white as Leonard Cohen croons ominously over the soundtrack.

It's an impressive spectacle, but behind the pyrotechnics is a trite pseudo-admonishment about America's couch-potato conspiracy. "Natural Born Killers" wags the finger at everybody: the media, the government and TV audiences. "Good" characters are themselves just a temptation or suggestion away from murder or rape. There's Tom Sizemore as a cop who gets off on scaring hookers to death; Balthazar Getty as a gas station attendant who makes the mistake of letting Lewis seduce him; prison director Tommy Lee Jones, whose crotch-picking, eye-rolling, tacky-suited shtick is a regular scene stealer; and most un-subtly of all, Downey, as the Rivera-meets-Leach scumbag who uses Harrelson and Lewis to cap his lurid career.

As for the principal killers, bless their hearts, they're just giddy little slaughterers in love--mere symptoms of the evil around them. Given Stone's mediocre agenda, it's a shame the two lead performances, which work so well, couldn't have been used in another, better film. Harrelson's dumb-ox poetics blend perfectly with Lewis's white-trash weirdo tics. At their self-administered wedding high on a bridge, Harrelson pronounces the couple husband and wife "by the power vested in me as god of my world." In a later scene, when Harrelson unintentionally kills a newfound friend, Lewis chastises him with a childlike "Bad bad bad bad bad!"

In moments like these, you're supposed to laugh, hate yourself for doing so, and catch the social commentary--all at a hiply knowing gallop. In the movie's most chillingly effective scene, Lewis's life with father is presented as a sitcom-noir with incestuous come-ons. "I'm coming up to see how clean you are," Dangerfield says, after ordering Lewis to take a shower. But if Stone aims for some modern equivalent version of Voltaire and Swift (as he mentions in press material for this movie), "Natural Born Killers" presents too facile a target. One doesn't leave this movie profoundly shocked about our collectively inured state, or the fact that Stone got us to laugh at caricatured violence. One merely leaves puzzled and wondering: Is that it? He's not telling us anything. He's riffing on a theme and--intentionally or not--contributing to the junk pile he supposedly decries.

NATURAL BORN KILLERS (R) Contains profanity, violence, partial nudity and sexual situations.

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