I’m going to open this piece with a music video from Nine Inch Nails of a song exclusive to the Natural Born Killers soundtrack (one of the few original tracks).
This music video looks like somebody made a music video where Rob Zombie directed a music video on speed by splicing together bits of horror movies and Terrance Malick.
This is no accident.
The video was directed by 2 people – Hank Corwin and Trent Reznor – and uses extensive clips from Oliver Stone’s drug-induced nightmare of a film Natural Born Killers. Other than when Trent Reznor is screaming lyrics from in front of a blue screen, it is difficult to tell where the Natural Born Killers footage ended and new footage began. This, in a nutshell is the greatest thing about Natural Born Killers, and the worst thing about Natural Born Killers. In fact, it is almost everything about Natural Born Killers.
The script Natural Born Killers, according to producer Jane Hamsher, probably began as one part of Quentin Tarantino’s fabled mammoth magnum opus The Open Road, a rumored screenplay ranging from 80-pages to 500-pages – depending on who is telling the story – that she hypothesizes may have been chopped up into Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, True Romance, and Natural Born Killers. The section that became Natural Born Killers, in turn, was made into its own thing by melding Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Sydney Lumet’s Network and any Prison Riot movie into a sort of slick, cool, Tarantino-esque satire of media about an obsessed television producer who makes his ratings by producing crime shows about the psychotic antics of two spree killers.
But…and, there’s always a but…
Jane Hamsher (founding publisher of FireDogLake) and Don Murphy (Transformers, Splice, Vampire Academy, Shoot ’em Up) had optioned the rights to the screenplay of Natural Born Killers after Tarantino had failed to get it off the ground. Hamsher and Murphy sold it to Stone and Warner Bros. Stone had it rewritten by Dave Veloz (Permanent Midnight) and Richard Rutowski (Stone’s production partner from 1993-1999; Jane Hamsher dubbed him “Pimpowski”), and made to focus on Mickey and Mallory while being influenced by OJ Simpson, drugs, and the harder edged alt-rock/metal/industrial music.
Thus, the whole script was changed from a Tarantino movie to an Oliver Stone movie where slick genre bending was replaced by a psychotic obsession about modern culture.
If you haven’t kept up with the download of information I just gave you, fuck you. This is Natural Born Killers, motherfucker. It didn’t give a shit about beating you over the head with information, so you should just deal.
Being a teenager from 1990-1996 was awesome. Were you angry? Yes? Then, you were catered to. Metal, black metal, rap, and grunge bands came to the forefront of the musical consciousness with bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Anthrax, Public Enemy, Metallica, Megadeth, Ministry, and Nine Inch Nails taking control of the airwaves. 1989’s unexpected blockbuster Robocop had opened the doors for more entertainingly violent action movies to be the tentpoles of the summer with Arnold Schwarzenegger leading the way. Tim Burton came to the forefront of our cinema with his semi-circus goth techniques. The music videos kept getting grimier and crunchier and faster and dirtier and more perverse. Even Madonna had Justify My Love as her kinky fetish video.
This time period was a constant bombardment of angst and anger and rage. There was even a band called Rage Against the Machine whose radio-friendly hit had the chorus “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” Of course, their politics were completely awash in anarchic anti-corporate messaging while their records were being sold by Sony.
1991 smashed together Anthrax and Public Enemy for the first of the mash-up with rap/metal’s Bring the Noise ’91 with a subsequent tour. This trend was followed by 1993’s Judgement Night soundtrack and then 1997 brought the metal/rave mash-up of Spawn‘s soundtrack, which was quite possibly the best thing about that damned movie.
This was the ’90s. A bleak, nihilistic rejection of hippy ideals of your parents because they were busy selling out to their corporate bosses to make a living, while still trying to bleakly reject selling out and corporations. The nihilists in The Big Lebowski? Yeah, they were somewhat relatable.
In the meantime, there was the Riot Grrrl scene bringing feminism and girls who could kick your ass to the forefront. There was the hippy dippy whiny crunchy college rock scene that brought you stuff like R.E.M. and Phish. Electronica started coming up in the underground. Pop music was largely rejected for more shallower dives into the genre pools. Even the mellower music was far less sunny and pro-active than the youth currently have. These were dark days and end times, surely.
The 90s were a decade that was setting us up for the YouTube of the world. MTV was at its most hyperkinectic, music videos had elevated to action movies, America’s Funniest Home Videos had started in November of 1989, and 24 hour news had really started to take off finally. Fox News started in 1996, 2 years after NBK. Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land would hit in 1997.
And, smack in the middle of this is Natural Born Killers. A hyperkinetic, nihilistic, misanthropic, fuck you all movie that doesn’t so much as have a point but screams the point at you, while fucking the point into your skull and beating you to the death with the point all at the same time. At the time it felt like everything an angsty angry youth – and we were all angsty and blackly angry back then – could ever want.
Natural Born Killers follows the life of two star-crossed spree killers, Mickey and Mallory Knox. Mallory is a girl still in high school when she meets the older Mickey. Together, they fall in love, kill Mallory’s parents, and go on a kidnapping, crime, and murder spree. This first half is the Badlands-on-acid-in-the-90s portion of the movie. They even have time for a Oliver Stone-trademarked trip through the desert to find an Indian shaman who dispenses little advice but is humorously prophetic.
In the second half, they’re finally caught, go through a bunch of media hype, and become television sensations with fan bases. Think Manson Family court circus. Suddenly, we’re now in Network-on-acid-in-the-90s. Their split creates the desire to get back together. Their post-conviction television appearances eventually lead to a climactic prison riot to help them escape, blending the escape movie with the Network messaging.
There’s also side plots of bad cops, bad reporters, awful prison guards, etc etc etc. Everybody in Natural Born Killers is a piece of immoral shit who is only out to get theirs. The lead cop trying to catch them kills a prostitute before screaming, “Mickey and Mallory, I’m coming to get ‘cha.” The prison guard has a book he’s promoting. The media, well they’re the media trying to leech off everything. Thus, Natural Born Killers completely embodies the Everybody is Fucking Shit nihilism of the 90s.
Much like Badlands, Natural Born Killers is kind of deeply romantic. Or, at least full of teenage level romanticism. Unlike in Badlands, however, Mickey is also deeply in love with Mallory who isn’t losing herself in some idealistic dreamscape of pseudo-love and desperately stupid devotion.
Mickey marries Mallory on a bridge by cutting open each other’s hands and melding the blood between the two of them. Drops of blood fall into the river below, spawning a cartoon of animate snakes clashing into each other. The symbolism is as heavy handed as can be. Yet, underneath it all, there’s still a renegade emotional quality to the relationship that appeals.
When Mickey and Mallory pick up a female hitchhiker, and Mickey wants to throw her “into the mix” while they’re having sex in the same room, Mallory is genuinely hurt. And, she kills out of frustration with the toxic love that they share with each other. The whole second half is driven by their love for each other (and their freedom). The separation becomes too unbearable, and they have to meet up to live their lives as a normal married happy couple with kids, putting an end to the killing spree of their youth.
Oliver Stone famously claimed that there were over 3,000 edits in this movie. That’s an average of 24.6 edits a minute, or roughly an edit every other second. Considering there are edits in the rear projection screens on top of the edits in the foreground on top of the constant music video edits, this is not completely in the realm of unreasonable. The editor here is Hank Corwin, who directed the music video above, and would go on to be Terrence Malick’s editor on The Tree of Life. And, if you’re keeping track, the plot of this movie started with Charles Starkweather who would inspire Malick to make Badlands which would be ripped off for Natural Born Killers which was edited by Hank Corwin who would become Terrence Malick’s editor for The Tree of Life. I honestly can’t make this circularity shit up.
On top of the 3,000 edits, Stone would use every single medium under the sun (8mm, 16mm, 35mm, VHS, TV Film), every camera angle, every lens, and every editing trick that existed before After Effects to create a dizzying assault of a film. To give you a hint of how maddening Natural Born Killers is, this is the only movie that ever made me motion sick while drunk. Do not watch Natural Born Killers while inebriated if you are ever prone to getting motion sick.
The whole creation of Natural Born Killers embodies the everything and the kitchen sink mentality of the 1990s. It’s as In Your Face to the EXXTREME as everything pop culture was. Sex was cranked up to 11. Violence was cranked up to 11. Editing was cranked up to 11. Colors? 11. Dutch angles? 11. Acting? 11. Just as there was nothing subtle about the 1990s, there is absolutely nothing subtle in Natural Born Killers. Just go back to that music video. That’s what the whole movie is like.
…and yet, this film speaks to that certain somebody. Namely, me. There is a hyperkinetic quality that just speaks to that angry adolescent in the 90s. You’re vibrating out of your chair as you watch things happen before your eyes, whether they’re actually profound or not, that excite and energize you.
And, it’s hilarious.
The one thing about Natural Born Killers is that it was the second really acidically hilarious film from Oliver Stone, and the first in 7 years. The other being, Wall Street. Oliver Stone has a warped, dark, brutal, gallows sense of humor where somehow molds his own reality that both reflects and comments on real life as well as its own medium. Stone has Mickey channeling the sick wit of Charles Manson in his televised interviews for fun. The Indian Shaman tells the joke about the woman who nursed a rattlesnake back to health. The prison riot violence even takes on some bleakly humorous tones.
Clip is NSFW
When Mallory’s history is being introduced, she’s in a sitcom called I Love Mallory, played with a laugh track. But, she’s also being molested on levels similar to Laura Palmer in Fire Walk With Me, as the laugh track laughs on. The point of the scene sharpens its blades at the formula of sitcoms, at the group mentality that makes you laugh with the laugh track, and remarks on how disturbing incest and domestic violence actually is. But, on the fourth level, you’re also kind of laughing a the sickness that the laugh track wants you to laugh with it. You’re laughing three levels removed from the film, which is also with the film.
The constant changing of tone, medium, genre, and style makes Natural Born Killers an exercise in sensory overload. It works on this level if you’re open to it, even if you think the political messages that it makes are bullshit and/or hypocritical. The uneasiness and sickness of the film are part of Oliver Stone’s point.
In essence, Natural Born Killers is much more of an experimental film than a genre film, an art film over a studio film, and the condensation of the 90s into one flash fire. Being a teenager in the 90s ingrained this type of style and imagery and made the whole movie seem one with the zeitgeist. Whether you enjoy it or not, the cultural significance in form, if not function, is understated at best.
I’m opened with a music video from the soundtrack, and I’m going to close with a different music video that came 3 years later. Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up, directed by Jonas Akerland, who would direct the rather ignored film Spun in 2002, is almost the signal that the 90s aesthetic had reached its pinnacle and would be falling apart in a gigantic collapse under the weight of its own nihilism and hypocrisy.
But, it was damn fun while it lasted.