Born Killers (1994)
The film absolutely seethes with an exhilarating ferocity, but the incessant acts of brutality with which it is filled so overwhelm the viewer that, long before its conclusion, he is left feeling exhausted and horrified. Because it thus subordinates its savagery to the creation of a poignant sense of revulsion, Natural Born Killers is, ultimately, a brilliant evocation of the ugliness of human nature.
While it is probable that the director intended the film to be an indictment of America's fascination with violence and attempted to create feelings of disgust in the viewer in order to convey that point, he has, instead, by means of his depictions of society's captivation with violence, created a gorgeous movie evocative of a profound repugnance. His indictments of society thus help to heighten the viewer's sense of revulsion rather than that revulsion serving merely to provide some sort of spurious instruction. Instead of simply evoking horror at the actions of two isolated persons, by reminding the moviegoer of some of the nastier currents running through American society, such as its frequent glorification of violence, the director is able both to universalize and to exacerbate that viewer's nausea.
What is more, the movie is visually stunning and, as a consequence, particularly affecting. By making use of animation, colored filters, a variety of different types of film stock, in both color and black and white, and numerous other techniques, Stone has given Natural Born Killers a distinctive, psychedelic look that greatly increases its nightmarish quality. The film is so surreal, disorienting, and consistently disturbing that the viewer, mortified by the wild, intoxicating spectacle it reveals to him, is left feeling like a drunk who, having committed some terrible deed, realizes what he has done only when he subsequently looks in dismay at the grisly effects of his actions.
Stone frequently accentuates such discomfort by combining the film's harrowing or repellent elements with humor or references to various facets of American popular culture. For example, the scene in which Mickey and Mallory meet, and in which the nature of Mallory's upbringing is shown, is presented as though it were a television situation comedy. The crude, cruel actions of Mallory's leering father (Rodney Dangerfield) and his references to his sexual abuse of his daughter are accompanied by canned laughter. The result is creepy, uncomfortably funny, and genuinely disturbing. Similar allusions are made elsewhere in the film, as when Mickey and Mallory's crimes are presented as lurid, sensationalistic reenactments shown on a television program that supposedly depicts the actions of criminals. Stone again mingles humor with the violence, creating unease with their juxtaposition, and so magnifies the viewer's revulsion at the atrocities he is being shown.
In fact, Natural Born Killers is a shockingly violent movie. Acts of brutality and cruelty animate nearly every scene. Many such deeds are shown as overtly horrific. Others, such as those just noted, are combined with humor in such a way as to intensify the loathsomeness of the savagery. Still others are presented as stylish or comic in accord with the ways violence is frequently presented in various popular media. Having been exposed to such a vision, the viewer is distressed not only by the violence itself but also by the ways in which violence is depicted in the media and received by the consumers of those media. Consequently, while the movie's palpable ferocity infuses the body and heart of the viewer with wrath, the ugliness of that brutality, along with an awareness of how it is often perceived, produces abhorrence, leaving the viewer aghast at the acts of savagery playing out on the screen before him.
The film's ability to engage the viewer is further enhanced by its consistently fascinating characters. Mickey and Mallory, who are brilliantly brought to life by the two lead actors, are strange, exaggerated individuals, more like stylish supervillains from a comic book than living persons. Similarly, the various characters whose lives come to revolve around the pair, including a sleazy television reporter (Robert Downey, Jr.), a crooked, self promoting policeman (Tom Sizemore), and a wildly rustic prison warden (Tommy Lee Jones), are more like caricatures than the realistically delineated individuals found in countless forgettable dramas. By making their personalities and actions conform with stereotyped expectations, Stone universalizes all these characters and, thereby, transforms them into particularly effective devices by which he is able to arouse feelings of revulsion in the viewer.
Wildly exaggerated, intoxicating, disorienting, and horrendous, Natural Born Killers is a savage, potent spectacle.
Review by Keith Allen
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