Oliver Stone’s controversial film Natural Born Killers debuted in 1994 to an almost instant cult-following and very mixed reviews. The New York Post called Stone’s obvious satire of an America despoiled by violence and exploitation a ‘dense, unmodulated, exhausting ordeal.’ Contrastingly, Roger Ebert (writing for the Chicago Sun Times) applauded Killer’s over-the-top caricatures, frenzied imaging, and high-toned rhetoric as the only way to get his satirical message across: [Stone] understands that celebrity killers have achieved such a bizarre status in America that it’s almost impossible to satirize the situation – to get beyond real life. But he goes for broke, in scenes of carnage like a prison riot, which is telecast live while the “host” gets caught up in the blood-lust. Diverging sharply from Ebert, Rolling Stone criticized Stone’s refusal to look inward at his own bloody body of work as contributing to the American viewers desire to see more and more violent images on both the small and silver screens. Stone holds up a mirror to a dark world, he’s too chickenshit to hold it up to himself. Its other cameras, not his, that turn us into blood junkies. It’s us, not him. In the end, these critical reviews didn’t change the trajectory of Natural Born Killers; a film destined to achieve a cult status and following.
Killers had everything a film needs to gain a fanatical, and as it turned out, criminal following: an original script by then indie-film sensation (and soon to be academy award nominee) Quentin Tarantino; serious rumors of an NC-17 rating if Oliver Stone didn’t tone down the sex and violence; a wide, but average opening weekend grossing just over $11,000,000; an arrogant Oliver Stone sitting on his throne and hypocritically sniping about his film only showing this level of violence once vs. week after week like his peers; a star-studded cast going for broke with every scripted line, gesture, and action; countless conservative groups calling for a boycott; and of course, the alleged copycat killers who claim Killers inspired them to commit coldblooded murder.
All of these elements combined to make Killers one of THE most watched and controversial films of our time eventually grossing well over $50,000,000. In 2006, Entertainment Weekly listed it as the 8th most controversial film of all time. To date, it can be found listed alongside other screen giants, such as, A Clockwork Orange, Pulp Fiction, Scarface, Reservoir Dogs, American History X, and The Godfather as a ‘must-see’. But, is it? Is Killers in the same league as films like Orange that have critical clout and artistic street-cred? With Netflix’s release of the director’s cut last month, Killers will have the chance to live up to its warped mystique with a whole new generation of viewers.
Over the last twenty years I’ve watched Killers more times than I care to admit and I can say with absolute certainty that Stone’s acid-drenched road film will continue to challenge and confront America’s obsession with the very worst of humankind i.e. serial killers, gangsters, and mass murders for generations to come. The following are a few scenes whose bite has not diminished with time:
One of the most talked about scenes in the film comes in the form of a vignette entitled ‘I Love Mallory’. An homage to 1950’s sitcoms the most noticeable being ‘I Love Lucy’. Stone’s choice to reveal the horrors of Mallory’s home life is perhaps the most biting commentary he has to offer. Rodney Dangerfield (Ed Wilson) and Edie McClurg (Mrs. Wilson) play their roles as Mallory’s parents with a raw honesty that assaults the heart. Viewers can’t help but cringe at the realization that Ed Wilson is raping his teenage daughter in the full view of his battered wife. Dangerfield brilliantly captures with frightening overtness the voracious nature of men who take their daughters as lovers and McClurg stuns as the quintessential negligent mother who’s more concerned over her husband’s dinner than her child’s safety. However, it is Stone’s addition of a laugh track and comedic music to these scenes that packs the hardest punch: children are suffering through the very real evils of incest and abuse in seemingly happy homes all around us and we’d rather have a nervous laugh and a blindfold than confront what’s actually going on.
Deemed the most poetic and artistically poignant scene in Killers, the wedding scene remains one of the most haunting. Stone uses the grainy look of a 1960’s 8 mm video camera for some of the shots and the effect is profoundly disarming. The home movie style shooting of these scenes softens the murderous pair into an earthy Romeo and Juliet. The dark violence assaulting the viewer just a few seconds ago succumbs to the airy, light surrounding Mickey and Mallory as they take their vows on a bridge overlooking the Rio Grande. The image of Mallory’s childlike smiles and long, white veil billowing out over the sharp, green edges of the gorge and the river below make the merciless killing of Mallory’s parents seem distant, far removed from this pair of star-crossed lovers. Mickey and Mallory join hands in a bloody holy palmers’ kiss that captivates and intrigues the viewer; drawing us deeper into their perverted love story. As they seal their unholy union with a kiss, Mallory’s ‘veil’ is lifted by a gust of wind that gently carries it down to the river below graphically symbolizing the ‘free fall’ their love and lives are already in. It’s not difficult to understand why Mickey and Mallory are so drawn to each other—he sees the beauty in her bruises and she sees the strength in his sadness. They are bound by their shared sufferings at the hands of abusive and neglectful parents and those are powerfully destructive ties. The audience knows Mickey and Mallory will come to a ‘bad end’, and yet, we not only admire their love for each other; we envy it. We want what they have on that bridge: a seemingly unbreakable bond. Stone uses this scene to manipulate his audience to feel for his killers in a fairly obvious critique of the American tendency to mythologize violent killers, like Bonnie and Clyde, into intriguing lovers with larger than life personalities. Twenty years later, couples are still traveling to ‘Mickey and Mallory’s bridge’ to stand where they did and emulate the love they have for each other in this scene. Stone, himself, couldn’t have dreamed up a more haunting image or piercing commentary than this.
Natural Born Killers may contain elements of a Shakespearean tragedy, and by Stone’s own admission, the entire film can be viewed as an homage to the 1967 road film Bonnie and Clyde with one major difference: the criminal lovers don’t die in a hail of bullets. Here, Stone deviates from the traditional formula of forbidden love ending in death and allows his killers to go on living and loving beyond the reach of the law. Mickey and Mallory Knox don’t ‘pay for their crimes’; instead, they get away with them. This ending isn’t all that ground breaking; after all people get away with murder every day. That said, the mere idea that Mickey and Mallory are ‘good’ parents raising healthy, happy children is pure fantasy to say the least. Both of them were horrifically abused by their parents. Mickey witnessed his father’s suicide and endured his mother’s constant abuse. Mallory was sexually abused and repeatedly raped by her father while enduring her mother’s blind eyes and neglect. In reality, it would take years and years of intense therapy for either of them to become emotionally healthy, and even if they came to terms with their violent childhoods, no doctor in the world would recommend parenthood for either of them. They are killers. Natural born killers. The pathologies both of them present do not diminish with time or even unconditional love and these facts are what makes this final scene so heart wrenching. Their children will suffer, not from parental abuse, but from the knowledge that their birthright is violence. Like their parents, they will be forced to wander the countryside never staying in one place for too long. They won’t go to school, make friends, or even have a place to call ‘home’ and this will have a lasting and destructive effect on their emerging psyches. The genius of Killers’ ending lies in Stone’s use of subtle misdirection. He shows us a happy family traveling down the road together, but is that what we’re meant to see? Stone leaves the question of their happiness open to interpretation. The audience is left to reflect on whether or not Mickey and Mallory have truly changed into healthy parental figures; or if lurking underneath that familial veneer lies the demons they never have and never will conquer.