IF YOU felt cheered that millions have seen "Forrest Gump," in which an honest person triumphs by being good and true, be advised that almost as many have seen "Natural Born Killers," the No. 1 movie of recent weeks. In this heartwarming film, two lovers depicted as resplendent free spirits commit dozens of graphic murders, shooting total strangers in the face or cutting their throats as they plead for their lives. As they kill they tell jokes or kiss while an MTV-style soundtrack plays, sometimes joined by a laugh track.

Nearly a hundred killings are shown in extreme detail, a glorification of violence stunning even by the standards of Hollywood shamelessness. Yet "Natural Born Killers" is a product of a mainstream studio, Warner Bros., owned by Time Warner, a major public company. For good measure, throughout the movie flash subliminal-speed images of screaming people covered with blood, decapitated bodies, children watching parents murdered, men strangling gorgeous, struggling women in revealing lingerie. Time Warner is running television advertising announcing this movie as "delirious, daredevil fun." Fun.

It is a baleful indictment of contemporary intellectual affairs that this odious film and its popularity have not triggered protests, even from feminists. The director, Oliver Stone, seems shielded by his affectational leftism. Stone also sought to immunize the film by loading it with digs against the press. He knows media outlets presently bend over backward not to be seen as criticizing those who criticize them. The thinking world has fallen for this simplistic ploy and is letting "Killers" off the hook.

Count the affronts:

Though "Natural Born Killers" contains fantastic elements -- flashes of cartoons, of Japanese monster movies -- the extreme violence is passed off as mere artistic representation of true-life serial killing. Actually nothing is realistic about the degree of slaughter depicted. The protagonists, Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliet Lewis), murder 52 people in three weeks. "There is no known record of any person or group committing that many murders so rapidly under nonmilitary circumstances," says Les Davis, a supervisory agent at the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in Quantico, Va. John Wayne Gacy killed 33 people over a period of three and a half years; James Huberty murdered 21 people in a single atrocity at a McDonald's in San Ysirdo, Calif. That's reality. Isn't reality plenty awful enough?

"Killers" further rationalizes itself by suggesting thrill killings are an everyday event. As roughly estimated by Peter Smerick, a retired agent from the FBI behavioral sciences division, about 500 "spree" killings occurred in the United States from 1977 to 1992. That is a horrific number, but represents just 0.14 percent of total murders in the period. On an annual basis more thrill murders now occur in the movies and on TV than in real life.

"Natural Born Killers" becomes hellish in its denouement, when Mickey and Mallory stage a prison break that results in scores of graphic deaths per minute as prisoners riot. Critics have praised the prison slaughter scene as "brutal realism," though both the death toll and the circumstances depicted are exceedingly unrealistic. The riot is so bloody because prisoners grab guns from prison guards. This is utterly ludicrous. Guards never routinely bear arms in the interior of high-security prisons, precisely because weapons might be grabbed.

A "realistic" pretext for extreme violence occurs when Mickey is brought to a television interview in a prison office. Guards with grabable shotguns idle nearby as Mickey talks, hands and legs free. This, though he is described as having killed three guards. "Once a prisoner kills a guard, his hands are never unshackled around human beings again," says a federal prosecutor whose work takes him to the maximum-prison at Marion, Ill. Yet the uncuffed Mickey rises from his interview chair grabs a guard's guns and proceeds to slaughter the guards, most of the TV crew and two beautiful young women inexplicably present. (Actually quite explicably: there for the purpose of being graphically splattered.)

Some critics liken "Killers" favorably to Stanley Kubrick's critically acclaimed "A Clockwork Orange." This 1971 film had many depictions of brutality but only one murder, which was not shown directly. "Clockwork Orange" was a protest against the notion that might makes right, a true problem of enduring significance. "Killers" purports to be a protest against tabloid journalism, which is perhaps problem #19,872 on the social inventory.

"Killers" is an important financial innovation for Time Warner, allowing a major conglomerate to exploit the sordid appeal of the slasher flick while hiding behind a patina of social commentary. To create the latter effect the movie spends half an hour belaboring the faux-intellectual cliche that there's no difference between murderers and the law. Does this mean if Oliver Stone were in danger he wouldn't call a cop because cops are as bad as criminals? Please. In "Killers," mainline Hollywood celebrities and a mainline studio pursue avarice by portraying the stylized slaughter of wimpering innocence as a form of amusement. This is not social commentary. It is a vulgarian sham.

Finally defenders of "Natural Born Killers" claim the movie is "revolutionary." Yet who gets slaughtered? Waitresses, gas station attendants, kids at a slumber party, mothers, store clerks, farmers, an Indian, runaway girls, various low-level assistants, cops, hookers, inmates, prison guards: the working-class and the powerless. If Oliver Stone really wanted to be revolutionary, why not a movie in which characters kill the privileged? Perhaps because if some loser is inspired to actual violence by this film, Stone and Harrelson, tooling in Porsches down Rodeo Drive, don't want to be the targets. Promoters claims "Natural Born Killers" exposes a sickness in our society. That is true. The sickness is in Stone and the Warner Bros. management, who seek profit by trendy mockery of human life.

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor for Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly. His book, "A Moment on the Earth," will be published in March by Viking.