This week marks 20 years since the release of Natural Born Killers, which is not, I realise, a statement likely to cause an outpouring of excited nostalgia.
This, after all, is a film with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 50%, one of the most derided films from a director with more than one turkey in his oeuvre.
Since Oliver Stone’s critical purple patch in the late 80s, when he was exorcising the demons of his service in Vietnam with films like Born on the Fourth of July, a series of missteps and vanity projects – World Trade Centre, W., that dreadful Wall Street sequel – recast him as something of a loony left provocateur and shameless historical revisionist.
Charges with merit, perhaps, but on his day few directors in the world are as bold or compelling as Stone, something you’re reminded of watching Natural Born Killers again twenty years later. Not only was his blood-soaked satire unfairly treated in 1994, but it has grown more impressive and relevant since.
At the time critics balked at Natural Born Killers’ violence (a little extreme in the year of Pulp Fiction and Leon), but more than anything, they disliked Stone, who had upset them with three of his most frustrating film in succession; a Jim Morrison hagiography (The Doors, 1991), a heavily biased account of the JFK assassination (JFK, 1991) and another Vietnam movie that fell miserably short of his own standards on that topic (Heaven & Earth, 1993).
What he did next, in the most eye-peeling way possible, was turn his guns on the media, and the role it played in glamourising violence in the era of OJ and round the clock televised news.
In Killers..., Mickey and Mallory, the couple on a killing rampage (played brilliantly by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) become celebrities for the MTV generation, inexorably drawing self-serving, hypocritical policemen (played by Tommy Lee Jones and Tom Sizemore) and a faux-disgusted press (Robert Downey Jr.’s sententious TV journalist Wayne Gayle) towards their toxic flame. It ends happily for Mickey and Mallory when they execute Gayle, symbolically slaying the film’s true evil. No wonder sections of the press were pissed.
But even if some of the criticism leveled at Stone at the time was correct – that a man who’d gotten rich making war movies suddenly preaching about glamourising violence was a tad rich, or that the film, as The Washington Post put it, “degenerates into the very thing it criticises” – it’s a crying shame that this has come to overshadow Killers...’ many outstanding qualities.
Even the film’s biggest critics had to admit it was a technical tour de force. The variety of shots, angles, filters, colour schemes and special effects is one thing. But the way it shuffles from tone to tone – animated music video one second, unforgettably dark pastiche of a cheesy TV sitcom the next (featuring one of the greatest cameos in movie history by Rodney Dangerfield) – is stunning. In an era when cinema’s ‘wow’ credentials tend to come from 3D glasses and CGI, Killers is still a visual feast, a breathtaking showcase in the humble arts of cinematography and editing.
Not that this was a case of style over substance either. By making the film so frenetic, Stone wasn’t just sending up the sensationalist, unfocused gaze of the media (however true that is, today more than ever), but the way we increasingly experience the world, channel-hopping (or clicking) from outrage to comedy, romance to murder, sex to a cute polar bear in a Coca-Cola advert (they were pissed off about that one: Stone didn’t care), without absorbing any of it properly. Watching Killers can feel oddly similar to sitting on Twitter for an hour – difficult to focus on any one thing, being constantly distracted by the latest idea.
It’s a film so jam-packed with small poetic flourishes and big, meaty delights – the original Nine Inch Nails soundtrack, the whip-smart back and forth between Harrleson and Downey Jr in the prison scene, every second of Juliette Lewis’s writhing, morally contorted performance – it really is not enough, as one of the film’s few champions Roger Ebert put it at the time, to see Natural Born Killers just once.
Unfortunately, that’s precisely what most people did twenty years ago, when Killers... was dismissed and buried as just another self-indulgent Oliver Stone movie. But watch it again, without the critical baggage, and you might just find yourself watching the most underrated film of the 90s.