Oliver Stone says he operates from the gut, and it won’t be just goodies and Gumps who dismiss the volcanically violent Natural Born Killers as something he puked up. Stone made the film after ingesting every media-hyped crime story from Bobbitt and Buttafuoco to Menendez and Simpson. You’ll see all of them and more in the epilogue. Incoherent as drama or satire, this surreal splatterfest soars on its visual audacity. Beware, you woozy-stomach types: Killers is a sensory assault (stretch that R rating, bro). And Stone shows no mercy. In the prologue, lovebirds Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis) stomp, stab and shoot rednecks in a diner. Their selection process is pretty much “eenie meenie,” though one cowboy stupidly howls, “I call her pussy!” when Mallory, her midriff bare, gives her tight jeans a workout at the jukebox. Credits roll over a splash of blood on a windshield as Mickey and Mallory drive off on a murder spree through the Southwest that makes them worldwide stars and leaves 52 dead.
It seems odd, at first, to find the ’60s-obsessed Stone (Platoon, The Doors, JFK) prospecting today’s headlines for material. Then you realize he’s revamping that 1967 landmark Bonnie and Clyde, in which director Arthur Penn used a pair of ’30s bank robbers to comment on nonconformist ’60s youth. Mickey and Mallory are a Bonnie and Clyde for the ’90s, Stone’s ’90s; they’re damaged goods — haunted, horny and out for blood. Harrelson and Lewis, both sensational, play the dysfunctional hell out of them. They fill in the emotional gaps left by the clumsy-script. Women don’t dominate Stone films; even in Le Ly Hayslip’s autobiographical Vietnam saga, Heaven and Earth, Stone put the emotional heft into Tommy Lee Jones’ tortured GI. But Lewis towers over. Killers, finding the wildcat and the bruised child in Mallory.
For a while, the fireworks dazzle. Say this for Stone: He knows what to do with a camera. The movie is a technical marvel, stunningly photographed by Robert Richardson and edited with Oscar-caliber mastery by Hank Corwin and Brian Berdan. Shot on film and video, in color and in black and white, Killers serves as a compendium of visual styles from documentary crude to MTV flash. Violent images from movies, TV and newspapers counterpoint the couple’s rampage. There’s even computer animation — Stone throws in an avenger as kid-vid hip as the action figures in Mortal Kombat.
Add sound to the fury with music producer Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails sampling the likes of Puccini (Madame Butterfly), Lou Reed (“Sweet Jane”) and L7 (“Shitlist”) in an audacious fit of eclecticism. By refracting the bloody tale of Mickey and Mallory through an optical and aural barrage, Killers makes its sharpest point about the various ways the media can shape our thinking.
The film’s most savagely funny vignette comes early. Stone tells the story of how the lovers meet in the form of a lashing sitcom parody called I Love Mallory. Comic Rodney Dangerfield — an inspired casting coup — plays Mallory’s dad, a beer-guzzling slob who likes to jump in the shower with his daughter and wash her back. “She won’t see my face for half an hour,” says Dad, leering at the camera. Mom (Edie McClurg) is no help. She claims she only conceived a second child, a son, because Dad was drunk and thought he was in Mallory’s bedroom. The son delivers the punch line: “You mean Mallory’s my mom!”
It’s incest with a laugh track, and the sick joke is that few would be surprised if a sitcom like it turned up next season on Fox. Mickey is also an abused child. When he shows up at Mallory’s house as a delivery boy, Mallory sees her deliverance. While she holds her Dad’s head in a fishbowl, Mickey clobbers him with a crowbar. Then they set fire to Mom, liberate little brother and hit the road. They also perform their own marriage ceremony on a bridge by slicing open their palms and rubbing them together. Stone shows drops of blood falling into the river where they take animated form and twist into the shape of a heart.
For Stone, over the top is a great place to start as well as finish. Not so for Quentin Tarantino, who wrote the story on which Killers is based but declined script credit now shared by Stone and his protégés David Veloz and Richard Rutowski. When Tarantino directs his own scripts — the 1992 powerhouse Reservoir Dogs and the upcoming Pulp Fiction, the best crime film made in America since Mean Streets — the violence is tempered by long takes that allow for nuance, wit and pungent language: all the stuff that makes us care. Well, Tarantino just got Stoned. Except for a scene in which the couple shows remorse for killing an American Indian (Russell Means) who takes them in, Mickey and Mallory are sabotaged by Stone’s hyperkinetic editing, his disdain for language, his unslaked thirst for bing, bang, boom.
Stone also brings something to the party Tarantino wouldn’t dream of: a superior attitude. Though Stone holds up a mirror to a dark world, he’s too chickenshit to hold it up to himself. It’s other cameras, not his, that turn us into blood junkies. It’s us, not him, glued to tabloid TV and cheering on O.J. in his white Bronco. Stone is up there on his own Olympus, muttering. “Tsk, tsk.”
Stone’s hypocrisy is galling. “I’m only doing this once,” Stone told Premiere. “I don’t have a show that’s doing this again and again.” Oh, really? Stone has been in the exploitation game as far back as Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981). He traffics in war atrocities (Salvador, Platoon), glamour drugs (The Doors), rape (Heaven and Earth) and misanthropy (Talk Radio). And what of those rending assassination replays (fast, slow, still frame) in JFK?
In Killers, Stone isn’t lamenting the world he sees, he’s getting off on it. He slobbers along with Mickey, who likes to have a female hostage tied up and watching as he fucks Mallory. A potent movie could be made about what draws us to warped behavior. And Stone could do it. He could expose his own demons and show us ourselves in them. Instead he hides behind bulldozing style, denying his movie what it needs most: a heartbeat.
Stone picks easy, tired targets. The hated media is represented by Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr. in full sleaze), the Aussie host of American Maniacs, a tab TV series that features interviews with serial killers and re-creations of crimes. Almost as evil is Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), a sadistic cop who turns his life in vice into a series of best sellers. As for warden McCluskey (a pop-eyed Tommy Lee Jones), his crime — besides stupidity — is a desire to be part of Wayne’s death-row piece on Mickey for American Maniacs.
Stone reduces these three superb actors to howling caricatures. During the interminable blood-on-the-walls riot scene that springs Mickey and Mallory from prison, Wayne sides with the killers to get ratings. When Mallory raises a gun to shoot Jack, Wayne raises a hand to adjust his camera, not to stop her. “I’ll kill you muthafuckers,” he shouts to the guards, feeling “alive for the first time.”
Stone calls this bile satire. But it’s not satire to skewer idiots. Satire respects the insidious power of its targets. Satire takes careful aim; Killers is crushingly scattershot. By putting virtuoso technique at the service of lazy thinking, Stone turns his film into the demon he wants to mock: cruelty as entertainment.