Natural Born Killers (1994)

D: Oliver Stone
S: Woody Harrelson, Juliet Lewis, Robert Downey Jr.

Quintessential postmodern spectacle from Oliver Stone (based on a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino heavily rewritten by a small committee). Psychotic lovers Woody Harrelson and Juliet Lewis go on a killing spree and become media legends. When they are finally caught and incarcerated, obnoxious muckraking reporter Robert Downey Jr. pushes the authorities into doing a live interview which becomes a violent escape from prison ending in his own execution; "killing you and everything you represent," as Harrelson comments with the kind of sledgehammer quip/commentary Stone revels in throughout.

What can you say about Natural Born Killers that it doesn't say for itself? How can you criticise a film for being obvious and overblown when its purpose is to state the obvious in as overblown a fashion as possible? What is the point of forming an opinion on a film which tries to prove that life is random and meaningless?

Of course, you can take the easiest route and condemn it. You can even go one step further and argue that it will encourage imitative behaviour. You can do as the Irish Film Censor did and ban it for fear that sections of the Irish population might be transformed into raving psychotics overnight. Decades of sectarian begrudgery and over long memories have done that already. Natural Born Killers would have made no difference.

In fact, it makes no difference anyway. Natural Born Killers is probably the ultimate postmodern film. It is a meaningless spectacle about the meaningless spectacle of (post)modern life. It is style without content which argues content is pointless and irrelevant. It is an ode to primal instincts (sex and death) which shoves its cinematic snout in pop sociocultural references no more profound in their employment than the collected dialogues of Beavis and Butthead. It juxtaposes Rodney King with I Love Lucy and asks not that we draw conclusions from it, but that we realise both are now part of the imagistic maelstrom which constitutes a world dead to itself and alive only to the thrill of the moment. Nothing means anything. Everything means nothing. Who cares what you think? What does it matter anyway?

There is nothing in this film that we haven't seen before. But in noting this, you are simply identifying one of its essential postmodern characteristics. It is supposed to invoke meaningful cultural objects from previous eras and empty them of their original resonances. Tarantino's screenplay was one of his typically playful homages to preexisting forms, in this case the "couple on the run" movie exemplified by Gun Crazy and They Live by Night and thoroughly worked over and examined in Badlands. But Stone has taken this idea one step further and bled the genre totally dry, serving it up as a stew of human cultural entrails which doesn't comment on genre, but makes it merely another ingredient floating in a filmic mire designed to end all film.

In fact, Natural Born Killers posits the end of all culture. All human endeavour is reduced to a simple question of predator versus prey. In the movie's most sustained scene, Harrelson waxes lyrical on the subject to Downey's TV cameras and comments, "we're not even the same species, you and me. I was like you and then I evolved." This is pure postmodern arrogance; the assumption that freedom from the constraints of society will lead to an enlightened emptiness; a perverse capitalist parody of Eastern philosophy (Harrelson even sports an yin/yang tattoo).

As far as actors are concerned, Harrelson fares best. His is the only character with a modicum of identifiable humanity and he plays it well. Everyone else is encouraged to indulge their scene-stealing fantasies, and outdo each other in histrionics. Tommy Lee Jones emerges from the lunatic bunch with the most laughs, and clearly inspired himself to play and wreck Two Face in Batman Forever. Robert Downey Jr.'s phony performance mimics the phony performance of the phony character he plays in another of the film's tail-chasing efforts and Juliet Lewis plays a stoned waif in what is presumed to be an alluring seduction of the male viewers (who are then punished by proxy when she kills those who droll over her). But none of it actually engages the viewer. And with typical postmodern smugness, this is probably exactly the point.

But at its centre, Natural Born Killers is another of Oliver Stone's hateful whines about the rottenness of America. For all its pyrotechnics, it is no more radical than any he film has made before. It argues that modern capitalist excess has bred a nation of natural born killers, and using the age old metaphor of the scorpion and the frog, retold here as the story of a woman and a snake, it decries the culture which killed John F. Kennedy (there's a fleeting reference to this in there too) and sent Stone to Vietnam as a teenager.

Postmodernism has proved an ample shield behind which cowards hide from dealing with their (a)moral universe. If art has no meaning, or any meaning you care to subscribe to it, then what is the point of art at all? Therefore postmodern art is necessarily empty, and, by definition, postmodern film retreats into a phantasmogorical world of half-realised ideas and half-remembered moments from other movies, serving it up as a profound statement about the lack of profundity which surrounds us. It is then surprising that a film maker as angry as Stone should choose this particular shield to hide behind on this occasion. One must presume that the technical challenge appealed to him, and that he wished to continue the tripped-out image fest he began with The Doors.

On the level of performance, it is well done. Though it takes no courage and little genuine imagination to make a film like Natural Born Killers, it is difficult to put it together. Its multi-layered image and sound tracks and varied film and video formats are beautifully integrated to induce the disorientation of people lost in a world loaded with excess whose only response is to fuck and to kill.

Does it work? Hell, yes. It achieves precisely what it sets out to do. It is a bloated, excessive rant about the excess of the modern world. Is it great cinema? Probably. It certainly uses the visual, aural and even print capacities of the medium to make its social and moral points. Is there any reason why you should rush out and see it? No. There's nothing here we don't know already, and nothing special about how it is done.

But Natural Born Killers exists regardless of its audience and its creators. It is a perfect work of postmodern art. It is everything and nothing, loaded with meaning and ultimately meaningless. It is above criticism because it resides in a moral vacuum from which it grins smugly and defies all reaction.

But why bother? You're not missing anything if you don't see it. In years to come it will be a valuable record of the age, but it will also be a quaint and curious cultural object seen through the eyes of a time presumably less apathetic than our own. And maybe then, the joke will be on it.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.