Natural Born Killers
n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
While watching Kill Bill in its entirety last weekend, I came to the stark and somewhat depressing realization that much of our culture simply does not get it anymore. I think it’s fair to say that some of the more sophisticated narrative tropes long employed by mankind some time ago ceased to resonate with many of the Billy Graham crowd (chief amongst these being the capacity to recognize irony and satire), but the criticism of Kill Bill as gratuitously violent by mainstream film critics seems to have sounded the death knell for the rest of us. Though Kill Bill uses unparalleled cartoonish violence for a similarly unparalleled comic effect (one cannot help but laugh at the over-the-top severing of limbs in Kill Bill Vol. 1's prolonged finale), one finds far greater violence in far more accepted mainstream movies (Robocop, which is played on an almost continual loop on public television, has some of the most graphic and realistic violence in the history of cinema). While the pedigree leading up to Tarantino’s latest pop-culture magnum opus is fairly long and distinguished, it strangely finds its closest thematic relative not in a Tarantino-directed pic, but in one for which America’s greatest working auteur is credited only with writing the story; Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, a film that perhaps served as the worthy progenitor for any number of violence-satirizing films to follow.
Though Natural Born Killers has been approached by academicians from a variety of new-media, gender-obsessed perspectives, the most appropriate ground from which to approach it while recuperating from the influence of socioreligious tabanids who decry the existence of such films is likely the ground staked out by pop culture critics. While so many concern themselves with the moral ramifications of the tale of a sociopathic couple on a killing rampage through the American Southwest, the film’s artful treatment of American popular culture, particularly the mystifying, tantalizing relationships between sex, violence, and the public’s peculiar love-hate relationship with serial killers (or as Woody Harrelson corrects Robert Downey’s Australian-tinged, Geraldo Rivera-satirizing character, “technically mass-murderer”) is what should we should all be raising our eyebrows about.
Well-regarded upon its release a decade ago, the seemingly absurd premise seems even more relevant in light of the reality TV craze that has gripped the world like a case of herpes since. While Stone and writer Quentin Tarantino doubtlessly intended the film as a hyperbolic condemnation of our then incipient, fame-obsessed culture, the two look more and more like supremely sage soothsayers with each passing day’s accumulation of D-list celebrity-starring, buffalo scrotum-eating, Flava Flav-is-dating-Brigitte Nielsen tripe offered up by network television and popular culture at large.
Ever the social critic, Natural Born Killers may serve as the high water mark of Stone’s merrily-paranoid, conspiracy-obsessed career. What typically saves Stone’s films is that even when abjuring a sound premise (as they so often and admirably do), the inspired performances he seems to elicit from many actors—whose careers otherwise belie their purported talent (see J-Lo’s performance as a Latino temptress in U Turn)—inevitably tender enough sideshow clamor to earn the film some measure of positive reception, if not on the part of critics then certainly on the part of audiences. Though NBK succeeds as a film largely because of a well-rendered script and precisely-executed conceptual framework, Stone’s choice of actors exemplifies his ever-sound judgment and capacity for extracting the most from his stars; Juliette Lewis inhabits the southern accent of the abused and sensual Mallory Knox with utterly convincing authority, while Woody Harrelson turns in his best performance (playing Mickey Knox) since slinging Veggie-Boy on Cheers. Even actors who have largely fallen prey to their own poor decision making and typecasting since the early 90s seem sprightly in familiar roles; Tom Sizemore plays Stone’s tendentious supercop Jack Scagnetti with sleazy aplomb, while Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Downey Jr. both triumph as inflated typologies of standards of the American imagination, the jailhouse warden and sensationalist journalist, respectively.
Mickey and Mallory Knox’s monomaniacal obsession with the notion of fame-through-murder eerily portends the 21st century’s brimless capacity for stop-at-nothing fame seekers, whose overriding motivation for success seems to be a fun house mirror image of Oscar Wilde and friends’ ‘art for art’s sake’ fin de siècle ethos. One suspects that had Paris Hilton been incapable of garnering fame and exposure through the callow machinations of her contrived TV show The Simple Life, she might well have turned in earnest to her best-selling pornographic video in the hopes of achieving the lesser but apparently no less satisfying infamy. It is into this type of world that Stone throws us, complete with a lusty pair of killers to act as tour guide.
Opening to the desolate melody of Leonard Cohen’s “Waiting for the Miracle,” the vast and entangled visual and auditory landscape in which NBK’s familiar plot unfolds has any number of common themes given voice to by artists who span the complete spectrum of pop music; from now-classic, soulful jongleurs like Cohen and Bob Dylan to the dry gangster rap of groups like Tha Dogg Pound (a genre of music that saw its greatest success at the very moment of NBK’s release), throughout the film music acts as the fulcrum upon which its alternatingly violent and tender tone turns. The transition from Cohen’s throaty perspective on a culture in atrophy while “waiting for the miracle” to L7's “Shitlist” is stark and immediate, a marker of just how incendiary and volatile the Knoxes are. As a bunch of honky-tonk cowboys arrive at the diner in a busted pickup, the music’s change in tone foreshadows the film’s: as Lewis begins to fight with the man who approaches while she dances (flickering his tongue and thrusting his pelvis) the lyrics of “Shitlist,” doubtlessly written figuratively, become a literal barometer for the Knoxes’ bloodlust. They kill every person in the room except for a solitary hillbilly, left alive to act as witness of their story for media outlets.
Images which have dominated the popular consciousness since television’s inception offer a sort of indecipherable but common language throughout Stone’s parodic ride, and serve as just one of a number of inventive devices that make NBK so complex. The TV Mickey watches during the opening scene flips blithely through channels on a television that is a sort of compendium of TV history, flashing back and forth between monsters from black and white sci-fi shows to moments and personas in history that doubtlessly owe their iconic status to the advent of the medium itself. Characters consistently act out their most perverse or unconscious fantasies against the seemingly disconnected influences of the green screen, and Stone’s reliance on the patchwork of televised history as a literal background in NBK thankfully becomes more than mere gimmick; as Mickey and Mallory screw, Mickey watches two preying mantises mate on the motel’s television, the green screen behind him filled with Discovery channel images of lions and hippos participating in the more straightforward but no more vicious mating dances of the animal kingdom. Later on, when Mickey and Mallory find refuge with an old Indian after choking down a fistful of shrooms and getting lost in the desert (a scene that perhaps serves as one of the film’s best uses of background music, Nine Inch Nails’ “Something I Can Never Have” lending an eerie and ominous tone to the scene as Mickey and Mallory start to lose it), the sky becomes filled with a mixture of wild, oftentimes sacred animals and footage from what look like old home movies, the cosmos having been replaced, at least temporarily, by the highly personalized mythologies of family history. What makes NBK avoid even a hint of preachiness in addressing such weighty issues is its ability to juxtapose these subtle, subconscious hints with over-the-top send-ups of the identical issue, as it does in turn with the Rodney Dangerfield-led satire of The Honeymooners’ oft-ignored overtones of domestic violence.
Like modern life itself, NBK doesn’t leave much room for silence, and so the cartoonish, stylized sense of violence and love which propels our interest in its barebones story receives ample backup from too many pop acts to mention. Highlights doubtlessly include the Cowboy Junkies’ cover of “Sweet Jane” and Patsy Cline’s “Back in Baby’s Arms,” though the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra ain’t bad either. While it’s a film about popular culture and music is spread throughout, because it is a movie which is paradoxically even more dependent on the power of the image than most, one can’t help feeling that NBK is a film in which pop music’s usually-important role is somewhat subverted; though Stone, like any good American auteur, obviously exercised a great deal of care in pairing scenes with tracks that amplified not only the scene’s emotive, intangible feeling but also the literal link between word and image, the sheer influence of the visual in scenes such as the diner massacre seems to overwhelm any appropriate music which fills the background. While this may disappoint, perhaps it serves as just another means by which Stone’s unintentional mastery of the future continues to shine through; after all, our current world allows the visual to quite literally overwhelm the music, as ‘artists’ like Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan (Britney and Christina were so two years ago), and Tyra Banks are given recording contracts large enough to float some third world countries, while songwriters like A.C. Newman have to get grants from the Canadian government to sustain them while putting out groundbreaking albums (God bless Canada). Perhaps Harrelson’s character was speaking metaphorically about the future (rather than his stranded, too-stoned state in the desert) when he said, “Snakes and birds, there ain’t nothin’ out here. Right now I’d go down on a lawn man for a gallon of gas.” I know I’ve used it before, but amen.
By: Drew Miller
Published on: 2005-06-09