Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Movie Review: Natural Born Killers 4 ½ Stars

Natural Born Killers is one of those rare films that you either absolutely despise with every fiber of your being or you completely adore with all the love you can muster. Those who hate NBK -- Tipper Gore, Quentin Tarantino and the Religious Right notwithstanding -- find that the movie is nothing but heavy-handed sermonizing preaching to the choir. Those who love NBK -- Oliver Stone and teenage French thrillkill murderers notwithstanding -- feel the film is brilliant satire, the heavy-handed sermonizing an elaborate part of the lampoon itself. I am an NBK lover.

In addition to being blissfully in love, Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) are two mass murderers on a cross-country killing spree, hounded by personal demons, celebrity cop Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) and Wayne Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.), an investigative Rivera for the show “American Maniacs.” They are also beloved by the public.

After the drug-addled accidental murder of a shaman (Russell Means), Mickey and Mallory are captured and incarcerated in a maximum-security prison. In a flash of TV-ratings-grubbing genius, Wayne Gale sparks on the idea of interviewing Mickey from the prison on Super Bowl Sunday. Mickey’s incredibly twisted and yet seemingly intellectual logic instigates a riot, which provides Mickey the opportunity to escape with an increasingly psychotic Gale broadcasting the whole bloody thing live.

Director Oliver Stone and company have fashioned a complex fantasy in NBK. The movie doesn’t make the rather simpleminded argument that the constant messages of violence streamed through the media begets real-life violence, nor does it excuse the actions of the amoral who blame their nihilism on the media. On the other hand, the media itself doesn’t get off easy. The whole of the media is represented in the film by a conniving, glad-handing, exploitative “journalist.” Stone provides no answers; he merely takes potshots at all sides of the issues, poking holes in all the arguments, shedding light on the fallacies and generally thumbing his nose at everyone. And he does all this with sly, twisted humor.

Stone also employs a manic visual style that, like a music video, shifts between various film stocks, color and black-and-white photography, and it jumpcuts from handheld to surveillance cameras to anime to surrealistic rear-projected sequences. This inundation of imagery creates an offsetting psychotic effect that not only reflects the trippy world of the characters but the media-soaked society we live in. (While it works marvelously here, Stone inexplicably used the same techniques in Nixon where it stuck out like 13 minutes of erased tape.)

I would be remiss not to mention the performances: Harrelson, Downey, Sizemore and Tommy Lee Jones (who plays the warden) are characteristically solid and Juliette Lewis delivers the kind of performance she promised in Cape Fear. However, the choicest roles belong to Rodney Dangerfield and Edie McCurg who play Mallory’s sexually-abusive and negligent parents, respectively, in a disturbingly hilarious segment in which Stone treats the horrific events of Mallory’s homelife like a ‘60s sitcom, complete with a laughtrack.

NBK may not be your cup of tea -- in your eyes, it may be a cup of piss. But either way, this cup runneth over.

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