'Natural Born Killers' is done in by too much technique, too little story


"Natural Born Killers" is about as "natural" as Natural Lite Beer or naturally mentholated cigarettes.

In your face like a drunk with a bad attitude problem, the movie hammers, yammers, blurts and blasts. There's not a single moment of repose or reflection; it grabs you by the lapels and sprays saliva in your face for two and a half hours.

Oliver Stone thinks he's making a satire, but he has no idea what a satire actually is. The point being made, under the coarse bombast, would seem to have something to do with that modern bugbear that has replaced "the system" as the generic target of opportunity for blowhards, "the media." Leaving aside the hypocritical irony that no man in this century has benefited more from media adoration than Oliver Stone, it's clear that Stone hasn't thought rigorously about the media, isn't quite sure who or what "the media" are, nor is he offering suggestions as to how to improve them. He's just brazenly throwing the whole kitchen sink at the audience under a mantra of hip and daring the squares to call him on it.

Under the craziness, there's a worm of a story. Originally based on a screenplay by a real enfant terrible of the movies, the twisted genius punk Quentin Tarantino, who wrote and directed "Reservoir Dogs" and whose "Pulp Fiction" won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and is the most anxiously awaited film of the fall, the movie tells the story of Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), two American kids from the heartland, trying to do the best that they can. But the only thing they're any good at is killing people, which they do as reflexively as breathing.

One presumes (one can never know) that Tarantino's original thrust was acidly ironic: sleazy white trash with the IQs of turnips but the feral instincts of rabid weasels, wandering the landscape, blowing people away, covered by media that apotheosized them for their beauty and daring without regard to the moral compass. Possibly that could have been a great movie, and someday I'd like to see it; whatever, Stone and cohorts David Veloz and Richard Rutowski (Tarantino now receives only a story credit) have so front-loaded the meager narrative materials with sheer technique that nothing in it is felt, and the plot line all but disappears. It reminds me of Pauline Kael's great line about "One From the Heart": It's one from the lab.

Building on techniques he pioneered brilliantly in "JFK," Stone shifts radically back and forth between film modes, not sequence by sequence but actually shot by shot within the sequences. The images rattle back and forth between high stylizations, almost recapitulating the history of film in every scene: black and white film noir, overexposed color, slow-motion, odd angles, raw videotape, even animation.

When Stone did this in "JFK," it had a thematic justification: He was chronicling an authentic event from dozens of sources, some legitimate, some not, many contradictory. What emerged was a kind of nightmare metaphor for the difficulty of ever truly knowing the truth: We had an impression of a reality lost under the dizzying profusion of possibilities. But the story of Mickey and Mallory doesn't have the mythic weight or the sheer historical meaning of the assassination of JFK. It's too slight to sustain the technique, so the technique becomes an end in itself; it comes to feel wholly arbitrary and unrelated. The result is to aestheticize the characters and the violence: They have no meaning under all the razzle-dazzle. The considerable mayhem -- mostly point-blank executions of helpless clerks -- has no power to disturb.

Occasionally, the movie is quite clever: In an early sequence, it re-imagines Mallory's squalid childhood as a bad '50s TV sitcom, with the vulgar Rodney Dangerfield as her sexually abusive father. Occasionally, it's quite powerful: The first sequence, a roadhouse robbery that's really just an excuse for massive bloodletting (and is probably closest in spirit to the original Tarantino script) is a terrifying yet weirdly hilarious account of the lethal whimsy of some very bad young people who play eenie-meenie-miney-mo to determine who will survive (it has something of the subversive power of the torture sequence in "Reservoir Dogs").

But as story, "Natural Born Killers" is a mess, as if it's been cut and re-cut so many times no one can remember what it was originally about, and no copy of the script can be found. Characters come in late, make no impact and depart. Tom Sizemore as some kind of Wambaugh-like writer-cop who's pursuing Mickey and Mallory for his own ends is one example, but he's just there; his influence on events is meaningless. Tommy Lee Jones, in a performance that's mostly about his hair, appears at the movie's end as the warden of a prison that Mickey and Mallory stir toward apocalypse.

"Natural Born Killers" is full of death, but it's not particularly worried about it. There's no real engagement with the troubling problem of random American violence and our own fascination with it. Stone is far more obsessed with the attempts of a feckless Australian journalist, Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), to get Mal and Mickey on tape for his tabloid TV show. Gale stands for all the slick purveyors of media violence, making a buck off real crime.

But Downey all but subverts the film by becoming its one recognizable character and the only one about whom we care. His fate, meant to be a case of just desserts, instead provides the movie with its only stab of real pain. As for Harrelson and Lewis, they struggle to play the unplayable and manage not to play it. Harrelson doesn't have the feral depth, the instinctual cunning to make Mickey anything but a lewd joke; Lewis has better luck, but it's virtually the same performance she gave last year in "Kalifornia."

As for Stone, self-decreed king of the issue pictures, his hectoring and bleating grow wearisome after a bit. It turns out not merely does the emperor not have any new clothes on, but that he's not even an emperor. He's just a guy with a $50 million budget but without a clue.

'Natural Born Killers'

Starring Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis

Directed by Oliver Stone

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R


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