When it opened 20 years ago, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers caused a stir, a ruckus, and an indignant, instant backlash. The film — which he described in interviews at the time as the change-of-pace lark he needed to re-charge his batteries after the heavy historical lifting of JFK — was the director’s hallucinatory, chaotic, yet closely argued critique of media cynicism. The road-trip/prison-flick tale of thrill-kill lovers Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis), NBK found Stone hyperventilating a script by Quentin Tarantino and making what he would later assert in his DVD commentary was a movie suggesting that “our media and our corporations are the modern enemy.” But Tarantino disowned the film, tried to have his name removed, and settled for a “story by” credit (the script is credited to Stone, David Veloz, and Richard Rutowski). NBK was panned by many prominent movie critics, and condemned as being at least partially responsible for inspiring real-life violence, including the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.
Given all this, how does Natural Born Killers hold up 20 years later? Explosively well. In 2014, NBK plays like an especially ambitious art-film attuned to what’s going on in our fractured real world, then and now. Every scene is shot in multiple styles and formats, with lush 35mm giving way to grainy Super 8, some frames saturated in single colors (green, Stone says helpfully in his commentary, stands for “sickness”). The camera tilts the actors at precarious angles and sometimes morphs into animated versions of Mickey and Mallory to depict their cartoonish reactions of rage and frustration. The extraordinary soundtrack overseen by Trent Reznor uses music by Patti Smith, L7, Bob Dylan, Dr. Dre, and many others as disruptive counterpoints to the action, frequently layering one song atop another for an aural dissonance to match Stone’s visual dissonance. “Don’t expect to follow every changeover,” Stone says of the montage in his commentary: “It plays off texture, instinct, deconstruction of reality.”
Nevertheless, a quick summary of the near-unsummarizable: Mickey and Mallory are both abused children grown up sullen and violent (Mallory’s incestuous father is Rodney Dangerfield, his popping eyes set to ferocious lunacy). The twosome zooms around a barren-looking Middle America, picking off innocents in diners, on the street, and in the desert. They pledge undying love to each other while racking up a death-count in the double-digits. The pair is hunted by the leering, corrupt cop Scagnetti, played by Tom Sizemore. When caught and imprisoned, Mickey grapples with a prison warden in the form of Tommy Lee Jones with gelled wings of hair and a caterpillar moustache.
Slithering in and out of the story in the same manner as the many snakes Stone inserted into the movie as symbols of temptation and danger is Robert Downey, Jr. He portrays an amoral TV-tabloid journalist, an Australian accented Steve Dunleavy/Geraldo Rivera parody who’s the host of the all-too-believable TV series American Maniacs. (It’s a measure of Stone’s tossed-off skill that this show-within-the-movie impeccably presages such now-standard cable fare as The Killer Speaks and The First 48.) There’s a prison riot, a bold escape, and — instead of the death in a hail of bullets we had come to expect in everything from Howard Hawks’ 1932 Scarface to Arthur Penn’s 1967 Bonnie and Clyde — a chillingly happy ending, with Mickey and Mallory escaping successfully, the end-credits showing them having sired two kids with another on the way, a family unit off on a merry vacation jaunt in a camper-trailer.
Our current context only adds to NBK’s vibrant embrace of media tumult and confusion. If Mickey were around today, it’s possible that Woody Harrelson in another form — True Detective’s leading-with-his-gut cop Marty Hart — would be tracking him down. Tom Sizemore’s NBK cop Scagnetti was reincarnated as a still-wily but far more sober investigator in Michael Mann’s great, short-lived 2002 TV series Robbery Homicide Division… and eight years after that, Sizemore became a participant in the curdled culture Stone condemns when he entered VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.
Harrelson’s performance is nearly impossible to evaluate because, while he shrewdly opted to play Mickey with simmering coolness, that choice frequently renders him mere background color amidst Stone’s phantasmagoric mise en scene. (By contrast, Lewis’ loopily eccentric line-readings and her periodic bursts into spasmodic dancing are the stuff of Oliver Stone Hall of Fame Histrionics.)
More broadly, the TV coverage of violence and its aftermath that Stone obsessed over (stuffing the corners of his movie frame with flashing images of Charles Manson, the Menendez brothers, and OJ Simpson; Scagnetti says his mother was rifle-shot by Charles Whitman from the latter’s University of Texas Tower perch in 1966) has become even more vivid and disturbing in the unbroken chain of ongoing gun deaths that now includes the Newtown School massacre and the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
One of the through-lines in Stone’s film is the notion that demons enter people, making them do things they’d otherwise have abhorred. At one point, Stone projects the phrase “TOO MUCH TV” against Mickey and Mallory’s chests in red letters, and in his DVD commentary asserts that “TV is one of the demons inside them.” These days, we’re constantly being told that we live in a new golden age of television; there’s an unceasing flow of praise for any number of cable and internet TV series that make art of the violence that Stone smeared across the big screen in NBK. Stone wasn’t playing a game of thrones when he made this movie — Mickey and Mallory are exploited and exploitive pawns, not red-rimmed bloody royalty — but 20 years on, his movie still works as media criticism: among much else, it exposes the chipper, multi-culti prison world of Orange is the New Black as the easy sham it is.
I first saw NBK at a screening for critics, and recall the Manhattan room as filled with silence when the movie concluded. While that’s not unusual for a New York screening — movie critics tend not to be the most chatty, debonair sorts, preferring to opt for furrowed-brow inscrutability — there did seem to be an air of sodden defeat in the midst of wordless gloom, a general atmosphere of what-the-fuck-am-I-gonna-write-about-this-ness. Confused and disoriented by Natural Born Killers, I resented the way the relentless film worked me over, and opted to tell myself and others I found it tedious.
I fully expected my re-watch to be an even more boring experience. Instead, it was exhilarating. Natural Born Killers in 2014 is neither grimly prescient nor a snapshot of a bygone era — it’s a stone gas, the blast Stone originally intended it to be.
Ken Tucker is a pop culture critic who has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, and National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.” He tweets at @kentucker