In the last several weeks, "Shelf Life" columns have examined venerated films from different genres or filmographies that were tangentially if not directly related to the week's new releases: Carrie in anticipation of Jennifer's Body, Dawn of the Dead before Zombieland, and so on. This week, we're looking ahead at a future Blu-ray release, next week's Natural Born Killers, because, quite frankly, who's seen this thing in the last decade?
That of course isn't to say it's not still an incendiary classic, but in retrospect, Oliver Stone's treatise on media savagery feels like both a product of its time and a random blitz of imagery that has since dulled our perceptions of (and reactions to) the film's overall effect. But then again, it just might have been ahead of its time, or maybe just a misunderstood romance, or some other unholy beast that looks a lot different 15 years after it debuted in theaters. As such, Stone's Natural Born Killers is the subject of this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Released in 1994 to a windfall of criticism and controversy, Oliver Stone's follow-up to Heaven & Earth took a galvanizing look at the ascension and sensationalization of media, filtered through the love story of two homicidal fugitives, Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis). With a production budget of $34 million, the film grossed more than $50 million domestically and earned Stone a Best Director nomination at the Golden Globes. Currently its Tomatometer rating is 52%, making it marginally fresh; additionally, Stone's multi-format approach catapulted fast-paced commercial and music-video editing into the mainstream in a way more confrontational and powerful than any movie before it.
What Still Works: Primarily, its social commentary, which seems even more relevant 15 years after Stone sought to document the descent of mass media into increasingly crass and sensational tabloid escapism. Wayne Gale, played expertly by Robert Downey Jr. (adopting a convincing Australian accent long before he'd play a dude playing the dude, disguised as another dude in Tropic Thunder), quite literally embodies the desperate self-aggrandizement of mainstream media to validate and glorify itself as much or more than any of its subjects. Meanwhile, the purposefully comical way in which Stone chronicles Mickey and Mallory's early lives, much less their adult exploits, not only provides an ironic counterpoint to the seriousness of their behavior, but observes the damaging and dehumanizing way that editing and entertainment packaging (much less promotion) has desensitized audiences to true human horrors.
Additionally, the actors do a uniformly great job with their roles, many of which veer wildly (albeit never unrealistically) into caricature: Harrelson and Lewis perfectly capture the fractured hippie-wisdom of their star-crossed romance, not to mention the unpredictable violence that dictates their next moves; Tom Sizemore is effortlessly convincing as the cop who is himself equally unhinged as he pursues them; and sporting a cartoon haircut and the filthier mouth than a shipful of sailors, Tommy Lee Jones gives one of his most inspired turns as the attention-hungry, too-savvy-by-half warden whose prison erupts in violence during Mickey's interview with Wayne Gale.
What Doesn't Work: Quite frankly, the "story," or what there is of it, anyway. Suffice it to say the film's structure is somewhat deliberately unconventional, offering all of the requisite rise and fall moments but not in any prescribed order, but the first half lags a lot 15 years on, mostly because the film front-loads Mickey and Mallory's mischief, offering valid but cinematically superficial motivations for their maligned psyches, and otherwise gives their time on the lam a lackadaisical pacing that certainly wears on the audience's patience.
Further, Stone's messages are seeded in the text itself from the outset, and he often hammers them home with almost trademarked obviousness, which means that there is nothing required of the viewer when he watches Mickey and Mallory be "branded" by subtitles that indicate who and what they are. And finally, the multiple film and video formats Stone used together were indisputably groundbreaking at the time, but in the years since its release, when directors like Michael Bay turned celluloid into intellectual confetti, his technique seems redundant at best, distracting or annoying at worst. In other words, there's a lot of "duh" factor in both the form and content, reducing the film to an experiment rather than a cultural commentary or even complicated piece of entertainment.
What's The Verdict: Natural Born Killers is half a great movie, and half a time capsule of the tenor of mid-1990s pop culture and its preoccupations. The film unquestionably pioneered artistic approaches to filmmaking that have since been elevated, evolved, and even reinvented as the foundations of populist escapism, in the process becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for Natural Born Killers' dyspeptic attitude towards reductive and pre-packaged entertainment. But it was never a text that achieved deeper meaning, even if perhaps it was never meant to, which is why it feels both vital now and hopelessly anachronistic in light of its effectiveness foreseeing the future of editing, much less storytelling itself.
Stone would return his attention to historical nonfiction the following year with Nixon, and later, World Trade Center and W, but perhaps not unlike Francis Ford Coppola changed forever after Apocalypse Now, the director seemed to reach a point with this film where he was no longer rallying against the establishment as one of the young idealists. Rather, Stone went from the longhaired kid complaining about the fence around his neighbor's yard to the guy standing inside telling longhairs to keep off of it – which is precisely why Natural Born Killers feels like the work of a filmmaker who could see the direction the world was going in, but didn't quite realize he was no longer a part of that flow until after it passed him by.