Filmmaker Oliver Stone is slowing down these days. Lately, he's been making rather tepid movies like "Alexander," whereas a decade before he was giving us things more adventurous, like 1994's "Natural Born Killers." Not that "Natural Born Killers" is any better a movie than "Alexander," but at least it's got more style. It also looks better than ever in this new, high-definition, Blu-ray, Digibook edition.
Of course, sometimes it's hard to tell what Stone's intentions are in making a film. Evidence suggests that he intended "Natural Born Killers" as a dark satire on America's love of outlaws and desperadoes, plus as a scathing indictment of the media for glamorizing such criminals. However, in the process of nearly bludgeoning us to death with his points, the director also makes us feel uncomfortably entertained by the story's deranged goings on. He asks us to enjoy the violence, and then in effect he says, "I told you so." It seems rather unfair, but it's the kind of controversy Stone thrives on ("JFK," "Born on the Fourth of July," "Nixon," "The Doors," "Salvador," "Talk Radio"). Unfortunately, it doesn't make for an entirely satisfactory motion picture, and while "Natural Born Killers" has unlimited vitality, its director might have exercised a little restraint. Therefore, I have always viewed the film with a grudging admiration at best.
If the idea of a pair of young, mass-murdering lovers blasting their way blissfully down the road of life (Route 666) sounds bizarre, credit the original story to Quentin Tarantino, who also had a hand in an early draft of the script. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis play Mickey and Mallory Knox, a typical, everyday, star-crossed, screwed-up, homicidal-maniac couple. The black humor begins early on in a roadside diner as Mickey sits reading a newspaper headline proclaiming, "Mickey and Mallory Kill Six Teens During Slumber Party." Then the pair massacre nearly everyone in the place. When the opening titles roll, they're drenched in blood. We see the duo murdering, stealing, raping, maiming, making love, and murdering some more for the duration of the film. We find no let up.
Robert Downey, Jr., always at the top of his cinematic game, plays a Geraldo Rivera-type TV tabloid reporter, who follows the trail of the killers and helps romanticize them. In Stone's view of things, he and people like him bear the brunt of blame for the country's obsession with crime. But he's not the only culprit according to Stone. Tom Sizemore plays Jack Scagnetti, a slimeball celebrity cop with a best-selling book on serial killers. Tommy Lee Jones plays Dwight McClusky, a wonderfully sleazy, forceps-wielding prison warden who looks like he should be selling used cars in Las Vegas. And Rodney Dangerfield plays Mallory's father, a foulmouthed, child-abusing slob, seen in demented sitcom flashbacks. Stone means for us to take each and every character and scene figuratively--even to showing Mickey shaving his head and donning a single earring to look ironically like television's Mr. Clean.
The film is an all-out assault on the senses, eager to prove that society creates its own monsters. Stone tells his story in a never-ending stream of multimedia light-show effects. There must be some kind of filmic device the director doesn't employ, but I can't think of what it is. He uses colored filters; out-of-focus lenses; MTV editing; grainy, handheld, home-movie sequences; camera shots from every angle; mixed black-and-white and color photography; animated cartoons; fast and slow motion; multiple flashbacks; laugh tracks; voice-overs; film-overs; you name it.
Stone hammers his message home: The media are the bad guys, and they have desensitized us to the realities around us. But he's part of the media, and the pizzazz his techniques communicate is a part of the hype he is railing against. He utilizes overkill to criticize overkill. Then he has the gall to suggest that love can overcome everything. I dunno.
In the end, Stone probably desensitizes his own viewers. We just want him to get on with it and could care less about the moral. In fact, the funniest bit in the film is one of the most restrained: A prison guard has a shotgun in one hand and a doughnut in the other. Mickey tells him to drop it. He drops the doughnut.
Good luck trying to evaluate the video in a film whose picture quality ranges all over the map. Given that Stone uses everything from grainy black-and-white through blurry, early color television to crystal-clear photographic reproduction, my guess is that Warners' 1080p, VC-1, high-definition, 1.85:1 ratio, Blu-ray reproduction probably does the various images justice, and it's certainly the best presentation the film has ever had for home viewing. The disc's accompanying notes say that Stone shot it using 35mm, 16mm, and 8mm film, plus a video camera. There's no question the grain shows up distinctly when it's present, as does the blurriness, as does the crystal clarity in alternating segments. Colors are bright throughout, without being too garish in the realistically filmed scenes and then looking appropriately cartoonish in the surreal moments. The overall picture looks a tad soft on detail, but who can really tell?
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio does what it can with a soundtrack comprised primarily of prerecorded pop material that varies in quality. The sound has a reasonably good frequency response, a fairly wide dynamic range, a broad stereo spread, good deep bass when necessary, a natural midrange, and strong transients. The rear channels don't deliver a ton of information, but what they do convey they do for maximum sonic effect, things like fire and wind and car noises. Switching back and forth between TrueHD and regular Dolby Digital 5.1 did not reveal a lot of difference, though. I'd say the TrueHD sounds very slightly smoother and clearer to my ear, but without making almost instantaneous comparisons, I doubt that most folks would notice any disparities.
Given the first-class treatment Warner Bros. provide the packaging, there is a surprising lack of bonus materials on the disc. First, there is an audio commentary track by the director, in which he gives us inch-by-inch explanations of everything he did in the film and why. Second, there is a series of deleted scenes, with optional director introduction, lasting a total of about twenty minutes. Third, there is an alternate ending, about three-and-a-half minutes. And, lastly, there is a Charlie Rose interview with Stone, eleven minutes.
The extras conclude with forty scene selections; a full-screen theatrical trailer; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Japanese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The disc comes enclosed in a Digibook, a hardbound, forty-two-page, fully illustrated volume of information about the film.
I couldn't help thinking as I was watching "Natural Born Killers" how much more effective the black humor was in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," a dark comedy that satirized an even more serious subject than here--world annihilation. Kubrick continued throughout his film to make telling jokes and devastating comments on the stupidity of Man in a manner that evoked laughter, sympathy, and agreement. Not so here, with Stone's sledgehammer approach. There is no denying that "Natural Born Killers" can sometimes be highly entertaining or that the director has something important to say. But he makes his point in the first ten minutes and continues to hit us over the head with it for the next two hours. Stone has guts, I'll grant him that; but he needn't have spilled so much of it in our laps.