Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Natural Born Killers

If you brandish a critical eye towards films and filmmaking, you'll eventually be able to note if a director has "got it". Someone who knows the craft, and/or has worked as a director or part of the crew, can break down for you the tech, can tell you how to block, coax "business" from the actors, etc. That's part of it, but there's also some unexplainable quality that distinguishes a scene or an entire movie, something that you can't put into words. Something beyond "great use of Widescreen" or "wow, great dolly" or "impressive tracking".

It was clear to me long ago that Oliver Stone was a director who had "it". PLATOON impressed me for many reasons, but mainly for how Stone encouraged (not overly dictated) a chaotic atmosphere that felt real (and he knew the territory). As silly as I thought WALL STREET was, it was clear that there was a stylist behind the camera. TALK RADIO was even more impressive in that regard. Even as Stone's films became long winded, rambling (but still interesting) attention deficit fests (JFK, THE DOORS), there was still an electricity, a cinematicism that was undeniable. By 1994, NATURAL BORN KILLERS was unleashed. My enthusiasm came to a grinding halt during a viewing one sad afternoon.

If you're familiar with this movie at all, you'd think the opposite to be true. This is an insanely creative, frantic piece of cinema. Like some of Stone's more recent at the time, it was a wonder of editing. But, sometimes the reach exceeds the grasp. Sometimes you get carried away and lose all of your original intentions. This movie sets out to satirize our sensational media, its fixation with violence, and the human monsters who mete it out. It goes to great lengths to illustrate how we've all become numbed to the most horrific events, eventually even pushed past that to champion murderers and other assorted fiends. The media is a big and easy target. What happens when the movie you're making is just as lurid and violent as the thing you're taking to task?

Producer Jane Hamsher disagrees that that last sentence would apply to NATURAL BORN KILLERS. She and Don Murphy produced this film, an adaptation of a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino (a story in itself). In her entertaining book, Killer Instinct , Hamsher relays some of the on-set intrigue, how Stone ran the production like a martinet overlording a team of minions, how shooting in a real prison with real prisoners got out of control (as these scenarios tend to, we've learned), and so on. She also devotes ink to explain her bewilderment as to critics' reception of this film. Many said what I said above, and she wonders through the latter pages of her memoir how many "just didn't get it". Oh, I got the message, all right. Two hours of bludgeoning really got the point across. Oh, and that very last scene, where we see an insulting montage of clips of O.J. and Tonya Harding? I think that was included for any dimbulbs in the audience who might've thought this movie was endorsing violent behavior. I think most of us "got it". But, I'm only calling things as I see it.

Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) become celebrities as they murder hapless folks across the U.S.A. Some might call them a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, though they're quite a bit cruder, even moreso than the antiheroes in KALIFORNIA. In Stone's film, the victims are judged to be deserving, most of the time. Mallory's abusive father (Rodney Dangerfield, first seen in an awkward sequence attempting to send up sitcoms)had it coming, and so did that kid at the gas station who tries to have his way with her. But many others are just caught in the crossfire as the duo races across the Southwest, soon with an equally repugnant reporter (Robert Downey Jr.) taping their exploits. Along the way, they'll get caught and escape a few times, leaving bloody prisons riots in their wake. It all makes for great television. We are told this over and over. And then told again. This movie isn't in-your-face, it's a full-nelson to the ground.

NATURAL BORN KILLERS was released several years before reality TV left its vapid impint on the nation's viewing habits. Seen today, it seems prescient. But shows like COPS were already around, and the aforementioned O.J. circus had recently shown the world a group of supportive Angelenos as they cheered when his slow moving Bronco passed on an L.A. freeway. In other words, this film's targets were ripe for the pickin'. I would've loved to have seen how Tarnatino had approached this, but instead we get Stone and co-writers Dave Veloz and Richard Rutrowski's thoroughly obvious, simplistic essay that simply does not know when to quit. Less is more! And to think there's an even longer Director's Cut!

It is an ordeal to watch this film at times, and not only because of the violence (though that will turn off many viewers). I was wincing at Stone's wild histrionics, his embarrasing attempts at making a statement through stylistics (the POV from the slow moving bullet in the diner scene is an example), his leaden approach. The film is directed and edited like what appears to be an acid trip (I can't tell you for sure, of course) that just pummels you with jump cuts and blunt imagery. The score by Trent Reznor is appropriate and selected songs by Cowboy Junkies, Leonard Cohen, The Specials, et. al, work well, but to what end? An obvious one. Sound and fury in and of themselves are not the most effective ways to make your statement without feeling the need for a shower afterwards. As I said, Stone's got the eye, but he really let it wander with NBK.

But, in amongst the manure are several pointed moments, most especially when Mickey and Mallory stop at an Indian reservation. Stone slows the pace and some of his tricks (words projected on the killers' bodies) actually work, but it's temporary. Over the years, I've thought about the moments in NBK that do work, and how much more interesting (and less vertigo-inducing) this film might've been. I don't usually advocate for remakes, but.....

Part VI, The Great Overrated

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