Forget James Brown. Oliver Stone is the hardest-working man in show business. He's directed nine films since 1986's Salvador, and in each of them he seems to labor so mightily for effect that you imagine his camera lenses and blood vessels popping with strain. Once in awhile, he seems to know exactly what he's doing, and his intensity becomes focused. The result is a great film like Salvador or JFK, or one that, like Platoon, at least seems great at the time.
Other of his films, such as The Doors, are purely stupid, if somehow invigorating. In this, Stone resembles another macho provocateur, Norman Mailer. (That's not to say that Stone is ever capable of Mailer's occasional burst of insight.) Stone would be the perfect -- and perfectly awful -- choice to film a version of Mailer's recent, wildly straining Esquire interview with Madonna. I'm not sure why that interview came to mind as Stone's latest film, Natural Born Killers, stampeded before my eyes; it may be all the "M"s. Stone's killers are named Mallory and Mickey, and they're only the latest progeny of Mailer's 1950s essay, The White Negro. When Mickey (Woody Harrelson) finally grants his death's door tabloid-TV interview and justifies his bloodthirsty ways by declaiming on the purity and poetry of murder, on how killers and other scorpions are just part of God's natural order, he could well have cribbed his lines from Mailer.
For that matter, Mickey and Mallory seem modeled on that archetypical white-trash outlaw pair that Mailer both documented and mythologized, Gary Gilmore and Nicole Baker. Unfortunately for Stone, in terms of exploring the American spectator's fascination with crime, violence and the media, no one has ever improved on Mailer's Executioner's Song, and likely no one ever will, because Mailer came to the subject when it was reasonably fresh, and at a time when violence and media sickness were still confined to a small enough space to be adequately described.
But as Stone informs us here, in one of his film's few memorable lines, media has become "man-made weather." That is, it's everywhere and apparently beyond the power of human control. But you can only attack the media publicly (as opposed to unplugging your television and rereading the classics in silent protest) by becoming part of it. You have to commit media abuse to comment on media abuse, and by that point you can no longer be heard. You're either on the transmitter side of the screen or the receiving end, and nothing else matters. Maybe the idea that the two sides exist independently of each other is itself an illusion. I'll have to ask Madonna.
Anyway, Stone realizes that his tale of two killers who become celebrities is an oft-told one, and he tries to fancy up the proceedings with an encyclopedia of filmmaking tricks. He shoots the same scene straight, then in negative, then with a hand-held video camera and jumps between all of the above. When Mickey reflects on the demon he has become, Stone shows us his inner monster with a series of Liquid Sky effects. I suppose that Stone hoped to show that Mickey and Mallory are products of an overstimulated, utterly fragmented age, but that's a rather obvious notion. What Stone utterly fails to do with this montage of images is shock. That's because he's playing the media's game, using stunts already familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Freddy Krueger movie. That Stone has combined fright-movie techniques -- as well as the low-budget, arty, back-projection effects of films such as The Nasty Girl -- with an "important theme" doesn't even tickle us, much less provoke. We postmoderns are already experienced channel surfers and image mixers, and we're way ahead of Stone's game.
Stone's image-mongering would work only if he'd grounded his effects in a strong central narrative and believable, complicated characters. The Nasty Girl was effective exactly because it combined disorienting effects with a solid, meat-and-potatoes story about a young girl's crusade to expose the Nazi past of her German hometown.
Juliette Lewis does get Stone part of the way there. At times her performance is too mannered, but when her Mallory is luring men (other than her precious Mickey) toward their destruction, her evil is deeply felt, and too real for the rest of the movie. The same goes for Rodney Dangerfield, who plays Mallory's gruesome, incestuous father. This near-cameo is the role of Dangerfield's career, as he finally gets to pay the world back for its lack of respect.
But Woody Harrelson doesn't transmit a similar sense of evil, or even menace. With his dangerous-looking jawline and even more dangerous genes (he's the son of a notorious hitman), Harrelson should have been more effective than he is here. I don't know if his failure comes from his limitations as an actor or from Stone's limitations as a director. From Stone's often-discussed "trouble with women," and his paranoia about fathers/authority figures, come two brilliantly disturbing characters. But Mickey feels as if he's hidden behind Harrelson's jaw, rather than exposed by it.
Robert Downey Jr. does reasonably good work as the tabloid journalist who talks like Robin Leach, but again, he can hardly compete with the real thing. Tommy Lee Jones has some good comic moments as a moronic prison warden, but in general his character is too dense to be interesting.
As is often the case with Stone, high-minded density is the order of the day. His story develops only because of his characters' stupidity. In a sin against verisimilitude, Mickey is unshackled during his television interview, something that makes it easy to predict what turn the live broadcast will take. Stone might argue that in this obviously hyperbolic film such niceties of detail don't hold, but it's not an argument I'd agree with.
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In an attempt to praise Natural Born Killers, some critics have evoked Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Such an age-defining film might have been Stone's intention, but Kubrick's nightmare continues to chill exactly because it feels so real; real enough to be unpredictable. That's not a word you'd use to describe Oliver Stone. In any event, the real Clockwork Orange gets played out every day on television. And it would take an artist considerably more clever than Oliver Stone to outwit the news.
Natural Born Killers.
Directed by Oliver Stone. With Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Rodney Dangerfield, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Downey Jr.