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Natural Born Killers

When Natural Born Killers premiered in 1994, it created a storm of controversy over its controversy. (The double use of the word "controversy" here is intentional.) This was the ultimate stab at our media-saturated culture – the story about how a pair of mass murderers would become the hottest sensation since O.J. Simpson, with the help of a sleazy TV reporter who glorifed them. There was talk about "Mickey and Mallory" copycat killers, about the movie's over-the-top violence, and Oliver Stone's use of ground-breaking, MTV-style editing…

…or at least, that's what the producers of Natural Born Killers want us to think.

It's probably not surprising to see how many people have fallen for the lure of this film, because it may well be suited for Oliver Stone and his "in-your-face" style. Stone's filming style has never been subtle; however, after the success of PLATOON it's seemed as if he has gotten more and more over-the-top as his fame (and his ego) spreads. Each of his films after that have become more blatant, as they rubbed our noses in their "messages" and dragged us through the dirt with them. Natural Born Killers, then, was the culmination (so far) of Stone's work, in which he abandoned all subtlety and attempted to blow us away with a cinematic shotgun. He pulled out all the stops to shock us and supposedly "open our eyes." In his promotional interviews, Stone claims that the film came from a couple of years in his life when he was feeling nihilistic, depressed, with an attitude of "fuck everything." So he put it on film, and this is what we got.

Stone's remarks about how the film was unfairly judged have focused exclusively on its violent content. Unquestionably the film is violent, and like everything else the violence goes over the edge. But what Stone doesn't mention, or even take the time to defend, is the way everything in the movie is so overblown, so outrageous, that the film stops being "shocking" and "eye-opening" and instead becomes a numbing special-effects display, drowning the film's "message" with the flashy visuals and reducing the viewer's sympathy for it to nil. It's an overblown, violent, live-action cartoon attempting to stretch reality to the point of satire. Unfortunately, it goes too far.

The "Director's Cut" of the film, now available on video, restores about three minutes of footage that Stone had to cut from the original. He gripes repeatedly about how the MPAA representatives who saw it couldn't pin down any "one particular scene" that upset them; rather, he claims, it is the entire aura of "chaos" emanating from the film that they found offensive. As such, the scenes deleted from the film aren't any more violent or offensive than the rest of the movie, and most of them don't add to or detract from its content. The reason they were cut was because they seemed (at the time) to be especially shocking. In particular, there is a clip, lasting perhaps three seconds or less, of Mickey raping a hostage girl in a motel room. At the film's climax, there is the much-talked about scene where a gun shoots a hole right through a person's hand, and the camera actually sees through the hole. These two scenes are indeed "shocking" when taken by themselves, out of context. However, their insertion into a two-hour-long montage of fast-cut images tends to dull their effect, so that the viewer doesn't do much more than raise his or her eyes when we see the girl in question being raped. It happens so fast that we don't have time to feel any emotion for her, and indeed the scene is completely forgotten (by the story itself, anyways) five minutes later.

One might say that this is a deliberate effect of the film, as well as a comment on the way the quick-cut editing style (popularized, of course, by MTV) has supposedly "numbed" audiences to the point where they barely feel anything at all. Oliver Stone is trying to make us look at ourselves. "Look at you! You're so numb that you don't even care about a woman being raped on-screen!"

But unfortunately, neither does he. We are indeed numbed by the intensity of this movie…perhaps too much so. We're so numb, in fact, that we aren't even able to think about the film at all. Furthermore, Stone has made his message so obvious and so simplistic – "This unending media barrage has turned us into a society of unfeeling zombies" – that there isn't very much there for us to think about. He's put so much effort into dazzling our eyes with unconnected, apparently random transitions to black-and-white images, animation, high-quality visuals, grainy TV images, superimposed surreal images, and every other cinematic trick in the book that we're left with little more than a special effects show. Natural Born Killers follows in the footsteps of MTV: rather than exposing it for the hollow shell it is, it wallows in that same hollowness. This is why audiences flocked to see this film, despite the fact that many of these same people would not even consider watching so-called "avant-garde" movies that use the same effects to make a much more subtle point. Will the audience of Natural Born Killers suddenly have a desire to go out and see Annie Hall' or Godard's Breathless? How come, for that matter, there have been no other "mainstream" films that try to work in the same visual style as this one?

Meanwhile, the restored footage does not change the film at all. If you liked it before, you'll still like it; if you were disappointed before, you'll still be disappointed. There are a few brief scenes that add some detail to Mickey's life as opposed to Mallory's; we see the death of his father and we get hints of how he became so depraved and soulless. The scene of the prison riot is expanded, and many more shots of the rioting prisoners are included, complete with some impressive stuntwork and and another grisly image involving a severed head. The coffee-shop massacre at the beginning of the film is also extended slightly, and you'll note several other shots included in the new cut. Oddly, the Nine Inch Nails music from "Burn" is removed from the end, and instead the entire music video is included in the companion videotape.

One commentary on the soundtrack: accompanying the additional scenes, especially during the prison riot, Stone includes more music from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan]. This is obviously an attempt at irony on his part. Nusrat is one of the most famous qawwali singers of the Muslim faith, and his songs are joyous celebrations of Life, Spirit, and God. By using this music as the background for an exercise in nihilism such as Natural Born Killers, Stone is attempting to show us how satirical the whole thing is: using music of life to counter the images of chaos and death. While this is great music, I fear Stone is aiming far over the heads of most of the audience of this film; it's doubtful that a great deal of the viewers of this film have never even heard of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. And despite the inclusion of his music on the film's much-touted soundtrack, I don't think many people are going to go out of their way to hear more of his music. It's their loss; but it's also a display of contempt on the part of Oliver Stone. Is he aiming for the "intellectuals" in the audience – the ones who will actually get the joke and "understand" the movie? If so, then I don't like his attitude.

The second video of this two-tape collection consists of out-takes and rejected scenes from the film, as well as the Nine Inch Nails video "Burn" (as mentioned earlier) and a series of comments on the making of the film and the reaction to it, from Oliver Stone, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, and others. The cut scenes are interesting, in that they would have indeed added to the plot of the movie; however, Stone cut them because he felt that they did not contribute towards the plot development and the evolution of the characters of Mickey and Mallory, the way that he wanted them to go. This was a wise move on his part, though it also displays more of the movie's weaknesses.

One especially disappointing scene involves the courtroom trial of Mickey and Mallory, in which Mickey is allowed to defend himself and cross-examine a witness in the case…one of the eye-witnesses to his own crimes. The idea of a murderer being allowed to defend himself probably struck Stone (and the writer of that scene, Quentin Tarantino) as an interesting piece of satire (especially in the way the courtroom scene ends), but this particular sequence is so ridiculous that its exclusion from the film was a wise move on Stone's part. Unfortunately, this scene also fails on a different level. The story of Natural Born Killers includes the idea that the American public could become infatuated with a pair of mass murderers through a barrage of media hype, and given the state of today's culture, this may not be completely impossible. But the movie doesn't develop this angle enough. We do get a look at the sleazy producer of "American Maniacs," as well as scenes of people who adore Mickey and Mallory…but this whole aspect of the film is still shallow. I was hoping that the courtroom scene would have been able to flesh out this aspect of the film, by showing how millions of people could focus so intently on a superficial media event such as one sensational murder trial (I needn't mention the real-life example where this came from), but it barely touches on this at all.

As for Oliver Stone's own commentary on the movie, as well as the interviews with Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Juliette Lewis, et al…they don't do anything to shed a new perspective on Natural Born Killers, any more than the additional footage and out-takes. Everyone dwells on the public's reaction to the film, decrying the idea that it is "too violent" and that it is an "exploitation" picture. However, Tommy Lee Jones' comments have to be heard to be believes, especially when he compares it to great works of art and mentions Moliere as an example.

Jones also makes a comment about how Oliver Stone's humility and self-deprecation is so exemplary, and how Stone is such a modest person…but then, one should consider just WHO supervised this entire video production in the first place. It is indeed a commentary on Oliver Stone, but it certainly shows him to be anything but humble.

In the end, the director's cut of Natural Born Killers is going to be received in the same fashion as the so-called "director's cuts" of Basic Instinct, or any number of so-called "director's cuts" appearing on the video shelves nowadays. It does contain some new footage that we didn't see in the theater, but this new footage does not change the film at all and is, in fact, completely unnecessary. It merely continues the saga of Natural Born Killers, and tells us what the film is REALLY about.

It's about Oliver Stone's ego, and it's about Hollywood trying to make big bucks by cashing in on the so-called "controversy" over an overrated, overhyped, overblown issue…an issue that is only controversial because Hollywood created that controversy.

In that respect, one might easily say that Natural Born Killers truly is a movie for the 1990s.