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MOVIE REVIEW : Stone Removes the Gloves in ‘Killers’ : A Murdering Couple Becomes Media Darlings in the Director’s Relentless Work of Visual Dexterity

TIMES FILM CRITIC

“Natural Born Killers” is the movie Oliver Stone was born to make, and if that statement is a knife that cuts both ways, so be it.

A filmmaker celebrated and excoriated, recipient of a pair of best director Oscars for “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July” as well as the contempt of the political establishment for “JFK,” Stone has not exactly had a tranquil career. Yet nothing he’s attempted before is adequate preparation for the over-the-top savagery and carefully controlled madness that is “Natural Born Killers.”

The picaresque, satirical adventures of till-death-do-us-part serial murderers Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) and their road to international celebrity, “Natural Born Killers” is both audacious and astonishing, a vision of a charnel house apocalypse that comes close to defying description.

So unyielding violent and blood-splattered it took five trips to the ratings board to earn its R, “Killers” (which carries an advisory label unprecedented in its length and detail) is too consumed by carnage to be to everyone’s taste. But it is also, and perhaps more lastingly, a tribute to the power of film and the skill of a director who, for the first and perhaps the only time in his career, has taken the gloves off with a vengeance.

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For all of Stone’s previous work can be seen as a prolonged attempt to pretend, with varying degrees of success, that he is an orthodox filmmaker. But after continuously trying to squeeze his crazed/visionary sense of the medium into Hollywood’s inelastic forms, of making at times awkward films that were equal parts conventional and maniacal, Stone has found subject matter that can tolerate his style at its most outrageous and disturbing. The effect has been liberating.

Screen violence poster boy Quentin Tarantino, whose Palme d’Or-winning “Pulp Fiction” seems almost tame compared to this, wrote the original script for “Killers.” But Stone, working with co-screenwriters David Veloz and Richard Rutowski, has so made this project his own that Tarantino has kept his aesthetic distance, settling for no more than a “story by” credit.

Like so many loners-on-the-loose films before it, “Natural Born Killers” opens in a bleak roadside diner. Mickey, a slight grin playing behind his rose-tinted granny glasses, is sitting at the counter deciding to “give the key lime pie its day in court,” while Mallory, in a skimpy halter top that reveals her scorpion tattoo, is dancing provocatively by the jukebox when some rough-and-ready locals slam through the door.

It doesn’t require much intuition to figure out that no good will come from this unforeseen meeting. But though the ensuing slaughter is inevitable, Stone, cinematographer Robert Richardson (a Stone regular) and editors Hank Corwin and Brian Berdan bring things off with so much visual panache we don’t know whether to be impressed or horrified. Or both.

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While this kind of “Badlands on speed” opening is outrageous, how far Stone and company are willing to go is not apparent until the next set piece, when what might have been an ordinary look at Mallory’s tortured childhood is shown as a warped TV sitcom called “I Love Mallory,” complete with heart symbol, laugh track and a wisecracking, malignant Rodney Dangerfield startling as a sexually abusive toad of a father.

It is Mickey, forever after to be her knight, who shows up to deliver 50 pounds of beef and rescues Mallory from this pit. And the almost continuous murder spree that follows is intercut with juvenile protestations of endless love and a goony joining of vows that includes Mickey’s wistful determination “not to murder anybody on our wedding day.”

As unnerving as “Killers’ ” plot is, relating it can only hint at what the experience is like on film. For Stone, in a brilliant display of visual dexterity, has so heedlessly, even recklessly, piled image on top of image--color, black and white, tinted stock, video, double exposures, animation and more--that surrender to the onslaught seems the only option.

More than showing highlights of M&M;'s three-week murder spree and their 48 (or is it 52?) victims, “Killers” is intent as well on visually taking us inside their minds. This means that a constantly changing array of images is projected on any surface that is handy, everything from shots of animals having sex to Edward Curtis’ vintage ethnographic footage.

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Equally eclectic, and just as essential in creating mood, is the “Killers” redoubtable soundtrack, containing more than 75 selections including Nine Inch Nails (whose Trent Reznor put it all together), Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Shangri-Las and the story’s poet laureate, Leonard Cohen.

Unusual for a film whose effects are so dependent on the bombardment of stimuli, the cast’s satiric acting is on target as well. Not only are Harrelson and Lewis all they should be, they are matched by both Tom Sizemore as twisted criminal investigator Jack Scagnetti and Tommy Lee Jones as a feisty prison warden. Best of the lot is Robert Downey Jr. as Wayne Gale, the blabbering Australian host of TV’s hottest show, “American Maniacs,” intended, he fondly admits, for “the nitwits out there in zombie-land.”

And the nitwits, “Natural Born Killers” amusingly and horrifically points out, are eating it up. Mickey and Mallory become the ultimate international media darlings, cover subjects for Newsweek and People and captivating fans like the wanna-be victim who holds up a hopeful “Murder Me, Mickey” sign during one of M&M;'s courtroom appearances.

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It was, not surprisingly, the chance to examine the how and why of this kind of celebrity-hood that initially motivated Stone to make “Killers,” and, aside from his technical wizardry, that is the element that makes the excesses palatable.

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For unlike any number of films, the excruciating violence and gore here is not done to titillate. The idea, witness O.J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers, is to mock our societal fascination with blood-letting, to hold up a cracked mirror and literally force a reconsideration of what we’re doing as a culture and where it seems to be leading. This nightmare world in flames that’s making you wince, Stone is saying, it’s the one we live in right now.

Does this all come off as planned? Of course not. “Natural Born Killers” lacks the rigor of the similarly themed, little seen Belgian film “Man Bites Dog,” and it has twinges of its own kind of sentimentality, especially in the scenes involving Russell Means as an all-knowing (is there any other kind?) tribal shaman. Plus, if you don’t find yourself on the film’s often warped wavelength, the nonstop violence will sicken and offend you.

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But because of the frisson of directorial energy Stone infuses this film with, we can’t help but be affected by its sensory barrage. Watching “Natural Born Killers” is like sitting next to a wild man driving at 90 m.p.h. in order to convince you to wear a seat belt. You may wish he’d slow down a bit, but it’s hard to argue with the effectiveness of the tools at hand.

* MPAA rating: R for extreme violence and graphic carnage, for shocking images, and for strong language and sexuality. Times guidelines: Although the violence is not literally nonstop, it feels as though it is. ‘Natural Born Killers’

Woody Harrelson: Mickey

Juliette Lewis: Mallory

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Robert Downey Jr.: Wayne Gale

Tommy Lee Jones: Dwight McClusky

Tom Sizemore: Jack Scagnetti

Rodney Dangerfield: Mallory’s Dad

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An Ixtlan/New Regency production, presented in association with Regency Enterprises and Alcor Films, released by Warner Bros. Director Oliver Stone. Producers Jane Hamsher, Don Murphy, Clayton Townsend. Executive producers Arnon Milchan, Thom Mount. Screenplay David Veloz & Richard Rutowski & Oliver Stone. Cinematographer Robert Richardson. Editors Hank Corwin, Brian Berdan. Costumes Richard Hornung. Production design Victor Kempster. Art director Margery Zweizig. Set decorator Merideth Boswell. Running time: 2 hours.

* In general release throughout Southern California.


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