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Natural Born Killers(1994)
Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis star as Mickey Knox and Mallory Wilson, two young, attractive mass murderers in love in Oliver Stone's wild-eyed satire on the American fascination with criminals. After killing Mallory's loathsome parents, the pair perform a ritual "marriage" and take off on a "honeymoon" killing spree that wipes out 52 people. Bloodthirsty tabloid reporter Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.) reports their every move to an adoring public while warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) is only too eager to welcome such celebrities to his prison.
For more about Natural Born Killers and the Natural Born Killers Blu-ray release, see Natural Born Killers Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on October 31, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey, Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore, Rodney Dangerfield
Director: Oliver Stone
» See full cast & crew
Natural Born Killers Blu-ray Review
"I've seen the future, and it's murder."
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, October 31, 2009
Anyone with cable or satellite television can attest to the fact that everything from the mundane to the more patently unusual (think of last month's "Balloon Boy" incident) is announced with breathless alacrity. Such sensationalistic "news" shows as Nancy Grace routinely have an "Urgent Breaking News" banner at the bottom, something I guess which could be seen as the broadcast equivalent of the boy who cried wolf. What is Ms. Grace going to scroll across the bottom of her screen when something really bad happens? You know, like a mass murderering couple on a rampage, a la Oliver Stone's notorious 1994 film Natural Born Killers. Those of us who regularly experience (endure?) coverage of horrific crimes on satellite or cable can no doubt relate to Stone's perhaps obvious thesis that the media feed on such events. One only needed to have the television on recently, for example, to see virtually every "news" outlet marking (I hesitate to say celebrating, though that in fact is what it seemed at times) the 40th anniversary of the horrific Manson family murders. And yet because of Stone's nonstop hyperbole in the film, which he couches (rightly or wrongly) as satire, it's often hard to separate the horrors being parodied from the film's own technique. Can a film which is ostensibly parodying the glorification of violence be taken seriously (at least with regard to its thesis) when it spends two hours doing a pretty damned good job of glorifying violence itself? That's the question at the core of whether or not you will see Natural Born Killers as a masterpiece, a travesty, or something in between.
Natural Born Killers, based on an original story conception by (who else?) Quentin Tarantino, follows the murderous rampage of serial killer lovers Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), white trash youngsters who are both running from their own abusive pasts (in one of several pop-psychology moments which are appropriately skewered in the film, including a hilarious cameo by "psychiatrist" Steven Wright). The two are a match made in hell, and soon become media darlings as they kill pretty much everyone who is unlucky enough to come into contact with them. Robert Downey, Jr. is on hand as the main television host promoting the pair, sporting an excellent Australian accent which is obviously modeled on 1990's trash television staple Steve Dunleavy (who appears in one of the extras, and who has not, shall we say, aged particularly well). The two other main stars are Tommy Lee Jones as the prison warden at the jail where Mickey and Mallory ultimately wind up, and Tom Sizemore as a cop cum bounty hunter who's out to catch the duo. All of the performances in Natural Born Killers are spot on, that can't be denied. Harrelson, who at this point in his career was known mostly for playing the dimwitted bartender on Cheers, is a marvel of menace and rage as Mickey, and Lewis matches him every step of the way, with a performance tinged with a scary coquettishness that makes Mallory completely unforgettable. Jones' redneck riffing is both funny and frightening (as is his patently hilarious hairstyle), and Sizemore traverses a very fine line between sadism and putative heroism in this role.
And yet ultimately this film is all about Stone and his directorial choices. If you haven't seen Natural Born Killers, you are in for a glut of sensory stimulation such as you may never have experienced before. Stone quick cuts through the film in a variety of formats, from 8mm to videotape to animated interstitials, all the while crafting his narrative as a media onslaught in and of itself. "Psychological backdrops" are utilized throughout the movie, often consisting of film clips and stills that hope to add a subtext to what is happening up front. Frequently subtitles are projected on the characters themselves to augment their state of mind. It all adds up to a hyperkinetic experience that will exhaust even the most ardent fans of the film.
The first hour or so of Natural Born Killers is, despite its seamy elements and its gruesome violence, a tour de force for everyone involved. Stone finds just the right tone between horror and hilarity as Mickey and Mallory shoot their way through the populace. Downey's host Wayne Gale is the smarmy cheerleader, quickly realizing what a ratings bonanza the pair is (and, yes, that is Mark Harmon "playing" Mickey in a recreation of the crime spree for Gale's show). And yet the first climax of the piece, when the Knoxes are caught, is when the film really starts to fray around its dramatic edges. Stone then invites us into a sort of post-apocalyptic experience where their jail time quickly devolves into a riot and yet another nonstop killing spree, this time all covered by live television, courtesy of Gale's top rated show, American Maniacs. The last hour of Natural Born Killers is a study in entropy, albeit one so incessantly busy and especially noisy that it just outright numbs the viewer. One of Stone's major theses in this piece is obviously about the desensitizing nature of television, something he explores much more viscerally early in the film in the quasi-sitcom segment Everyone Loves Mallory, which plays out like a sort of nightmarish version of Married With Children. But here, later in the film, it's simply too much and goes on too long to ultimately have its desired effect.
In an extra culled from the previous laserdisc release of this Director's Cut, both Stone and Harrelson pooh-pooh any influence the film itself may have on impressionable youth. This was obviously made pre-Columbine, as the two shooters in that tragedy were evidently obsessed by Natural Born Killers. And that ultimately is the problem with satire played literally for blood and guts the way it is here—those with enough objectivity and, yes, even wisdom to understand Stone's underlying acerbity will "get it." Those who simply revel in the film's outright violence will, like the desensitized characters in the film itself, simply be puppets hypnotized by the onslaught of that same blood and guts. Satire like this relies on a certain intelligence which the audience must bring to the project. Unfortunately the sad fact is that, perfectly in line with Stone's reasoning vis a vis the modern media and its effect on people, the public at large has been "dumbed down" by television and other media to the point where I'm not sure they'll be adequately prepared to separate satire from reality, and that is the real tragedy which both proves Natural Born Killers' point and also makes it one of the most frightening boogie men of this Halloween season.
Natural Born Killers Blu-ray, Video Quality
Natural Born Killers arrives on Blu-ray with a 1080p/VC-1 encode that is startlingly variegated in its image quality due to the wide variety of formats Stone utilized to film the piece. Natural Born Killers plays like a patchwork quilt of styles, including everything from grainy desaturated video, to highly defined film. Therefore in analyzing this Blu-ray, the viewer needs to separate the widely divergent image qualities inherent in the source material from the Blu-ray itself. The bottom line is, this BD reproduces Stone's original vision, for better or worse, with pretty inerrant accuracy. The filmed elements sport a rather garish palette, one that tends toward ruddy red fleshtones, but detail is excellent throughout. The many smaller millimeter formats, while noticeably (and understandably) softer, also sport relatively sharp definition. The overly grainy black and white post-processed shots verge toward a digital noise look at times, but my sense is this was the original look of the film (which I haven't seen since its original, edited version in 1994). There were no egregious examples of artifacting that I noticed anywhere throughout the film.
Natural Born Killers Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Natural Born Killers has one of the most bombastic Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mixes in recent memory. This is a film which delights in an aural onslaught that is not only immersive but at times almost oppressively loud. Everything from gunshots to the virtually nonstop underscore envelops the listener, with rear channels being consistently utilized throughout the film. Directionality is at times almost cartoonish throughout the film, with bullets whizzing from left to right. This cacaphony can get pretty overwhelming, especially in the film's final riot scenes, when there is such a glut of aural information assaulting the listener from every angle that it's hard to separate discrete elements (something that I'm sure was desired by Stone in his sound design for the film). Dialogue is always crisp and clear, and this soundmix does sport one of the most impressively dynamic ranges in recent memory, with everything from the startling LFE of explosions to the ultra high frequency of a victim's scream being reproduced with absolutely accuracy. I did do some spot checking with the other major English offering, a traditional Dolby 5.1 mix, and while it's certainly fine, you'll notice immediately the lack of range on this mix, with neither the lowest lows or the highest high as sonically present as they are in the TrueHD mix. This is especially evident in the riot scene which caps the film.
Natural Born Killers Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Natural Born Killers: The Director's Cut first and foremost restores over 150 (admittedly small) cuts that Stone had to make to appease the ratings board when the film was first released in 1994. In terms of actual extras on the BD, there are two good featurettes, the first of which is new and in HD, Natural Born Killers Evolution (21:59), which goes into some depth about the filming (including some rather nonchalant commentary about the rampant drug use--including hallucinogens--on set). This piece, which interviews several website gurus like Wikipedia's "Jimbo" Wales also makes it abundantly clear how much worse things are a mere 15 years later in terms of media (including internet) coverage of these sorts of events. Ported over from the laserdisc release is the SD Chaos Rising (26:30), which is the featurette where Stone and Harrelson, both obviously pre-Columbine, say the film could never inspire violence. A Charlie Rose interview with Stone is the final video extra. Also on tap are several deleted scenes, all in SD, including a kind of funny stream of consciousness rant by Denis Leary as well as an alternate ending featuring "The Angel of Mercy" (look for him in several scenes throughout the film--he's the guy reading the newspaper in the opening cafe scene, and later is the guide out of the jail). There's also a thick insert booklet with lots of pictures and commentary by Stone and others.
Natural Born Killers Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
When a film seems to glory in the very subject it's simultaneously attempting to excoriate, it's bound to be controversial. Natural Born Killers' reputation may have been forever changed by the tragedy at Columbine, but even before that horror, a lot of viewers and critics were troubled by the film's penchant for highlighting the very violence it took the media to task for sensationalizing. All of that said, the film is a wonder of styles and contains both Stone's typical trenchant attitude about modern life, as well as some visceral performances by its lead quintet. It's a film that sparks discussion, a film that is patently provocative and over the top. It probably should not be viewed by anyone impressionable and emotionally troubled. Whether or not you fall into that particular category, you'll also need to decide if you need to be exposed to something this graphic in order to decry violence and the media's promotion of it.
Natural Born Killers: Other Editions
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