the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Natural Born Killers (1994)

Stone-Bred Killers

Robert Sandifur's story was nearly lost amongst the flurry of news reports chronicling the latest developments in the OJ Simpson trial. Mr. Sandifur opened fire with his nine millimeter semiautomatic severely wounding a 16 year old. Two hours later he used the same pistol in an attack on a group of children playing pick-up football; a 14 year old girl died. Robert loves cookies, collects stuffed animals and sports a tattoo. He is eleven years old. Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, a meditation on youthful violence and American TV culture, opened to nationwide movie audiences the same week as the six grader's rampage. Mr. Stone prides himself on being topical and self-righteous. He chronicles a baby boomer's view of the seminal moments/personalities from the recent past/present; weaving histrionic stories with sophomoric calls to action. It is doubtful that Salvador had any impact on US policy in Central America or that JFK shed any light on President Kennedy's assassination but his zeal is unmistakable. These are films from a man possessed by a vision.  Platoon and Wall Street are heartfelt, albeit mindless. Mr. Stone doesn't engage an audience, he preaches his gospel. This monomania leaves little room for doubters and non-believers. Stone delivers simulacrums populated by one dimensional characters. Although the artistry is lacking he deserves credit for attempts at creating an activist, socially conscious, popular cinema. Little wonder in the age of little Robert Sandifur that Mr. Stone chooses to tackle youth violence and the media.

Natural Born Killers is a departure for Mr. Stone and for mainstream Hollywood dramatic features. The formulaic linear narrative is supplanted by a frenetic, highly stylized medley which oscillates amongst a variety of moods: newsreel documentary, MTV rock-video fantasy, sit-com parody and traditional story telling. These swings are accompanied by shifts in format (video to film, fine to grainy, color to black & white), camera choreography (fixed to unwieldy) and soundtrack (straightforward dialogue to ear shattering rock). The center attraction in the visual circus is a bloodthirsty teenage couple, Woody Harrelson & Juliette Lewis. The first half of the film chronicles their carnage. The motivation for their blood-lust is traced to their abusive families. Ms. Lewis has a sexually abusive father, Rodney Dangerfield, who commits acts of incest in-between his trademark one liners. This disturbing sequence is presented with a mock sit-com "laugh track". Woody's upbringing is no less horrific but is delivered in staccato black and white images: the young innocent being pummeled by a drunken father. Don't worry Daddy blows his head off; unfortunately it is in front of his impressionable son. The sideshows, which are the central focus after the couple are incarcerated, are equally disturbing. Robert Downey Jr. plays a Robin Leach-like tabloid journalist who places ratings above everything. Tommy Lee Jones parodies his performance in The Fugitive by being an idiotic, mean-spirited jail warden. Tom Sizemore is a psychotic publicity-crazed police detective who is infatuated with the murderous teen couple to a point of jealousy. Given this supporting cast Woody and Juliette are some of the more likable characters presented. Once again, in terms of style and text, this is not a typical Hollywood narrative.

All the sound and the fury fails to mask the lack of substance. Natural Born Killers' uneven tone and stark brutality prevents it from being pure satire. As drama it is careless, sensationalistic and ill-conceived. Perhaps Mr. Stone's greatest shortcoming is the depiction of Harrelson & Lewis. This couple is an incarnation of the dispassionate, high-tech world which places celebrity over meaningful human interaction. American cinema is replete with anti-social crime couples devouring the heartland (e.g. Bonnie & Clyde, In Cold Blood, Badlands…). Unfortunately for Mr. Stone the old formula of placing the badguys in a unstylized environment is far more effective in telling the story: the savagery of the couple's acts is highlighted and the audience is forced to examine their motivation through the prism of a familiar world. The only redeeming character Mr. Stone chooses to present is, not surprisingly, far outside middle American culture - an elderly Native American. Conversely Woody & Juliette are the native son and daughter of a deranged mainstream establishment. In this context their brutality blends with the background rendering them invisible. They simply disappear amidst a shower of flash-frame images and Trent Reznor's power chords.

Underneath the complicated morass of images and noises lies Mr. Stone bellowing "oh the horror". It is hard to reconcile all the gloom and doom with the fact that he makes a damn good living mining the cultural wasteland. It is doubtful that he is thinking of abandoning Los Angeles for a Hopi retreat in the Arizona mountains or a survivalist camp overseas. The apocalyptic message might simply stem from a slip-shod approach to the subject matter. The director became overwhelmed by the technical gimmickry and created a hopeless world as an unintentional byproduct. Stone might also be gleefully feeding the fires of a cultural Armageddon: "The kids are killing everything so I'll make a picture where the kids kill everything. It'll sell like hot-cakes". Whether Stone is careless, misguided or evil the disingenuousness of the film rises to the surface. There is a disconnection between the slick events on screen and real-life social turmoil. Natural Born Killers fails to give insights into the life of little 11 year old Robert Sandifur. Evil is far more than the sum of bad deeds. Anti-heroes must be empathetic; not pathetic. It would be interesting to know Robert's thoughts on the film. Unfortunately he was executed by a 14 year old fellow gang-member because his actions were drawing too much pressure from the police. Following his murder he was immortalized on the cover of Newsweek. Oliver Stone's imagination pales when matched against our horrible reality. The need to speak out is real; so is the need for better filmmakers.   

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