Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2(5) (1994) 113-117
Perhaps the most telling moment in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers comes when Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis), the charismatic serial killer couple that captures the attention of the nation with their flamboyant style, visit a Native American reservation after their car runs out of gas. As they stand in the glow of the fire unable to communicate with the chief because he doesn't speak English, words flash on their chests in one of the movie's many surreal scenes. The messages (supposed translations of what the chief says about them) read "demon" and "watched too much TV." The scene perfectly illustrates Stone's simplistic attack on the media and the tendency in American culture to label and demonize criminals. In Killers, Stone simultaneously points his finger at the media and "human nature" in assigning blame for the supposedly rampant spread of serial killing and mass murder in America. In the press notes for the film, Stone criticizes media coverage of violence, anti-crime legislation, and "cops, wardens, prisons, and reporters" who have become "part of a vast and bizarre web of cruel, totalitarian punishment." From Stone's comments, it's apparent he intends the film as a radical critique of the conservative response to crime - building up right-wing power structures. By depicting Mickey and Mallory as social deviants and the media as the outlet that promotes such deviance, Stone actually comes down on the conservative side he seemingly intends to critique. Philip Jenkins (1994) has recently argued that the serial killer scare is the creation of right-wing conservatives concerned with increasing authoritarian power structures. Stone's film does not suggest that the perception of increased violence is a political tool; it blows the serial killer scare up into a frightening sensory assault. With its tendency to demonize criminality and its moralistic tone, Killers is as reactionary as the right-wing politics it tries to criticize. Killers [End page 113] offers no prescription for alleviating violence, and its outlandish portrayal of violent crime is likely to lead viewers to endorse censorship and authoritarian power structures.
For Stone, serial killing has its roots in dysfunctional families, and he portrays Mallory's family life in a staged skit entitled "I Love Mallory." Rodney Dangerfield plays her abusive father who suggestively grabs her buttocks and makes jokes about meeting her in the shower as the in-studio audience roars with approving laughter. Mickey, too, was abused as a child and still suffers from flashbacks. But as Jenkins notes in his study, to blame serial killing on a tormented childhood is an old trick, and no figures support the equation of child abuse with serial killing: "The idea that serial murder was a consequence of child abuse became a commonplace of the 1980s, in part because the doctrine was useful to so many groups" (p.128). By focusing on the disintegration of the American family, Stone places himself in the company of children's rights supporters, psychiatrists, and conservatives who stress family values as part of their political agenda.
Shot as if it were a long music video, Killers follows the violent exploits of Mickey and Mallory, from the gruesome murder of Mallory's parents (she drowns her dad in the fishtank and torches her mother as she sleeps) to their incarceration and moment of glory on the tabloid TV series "American Maniacs," hosted by Wayne Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.). The film's story is told as a satire, perhaps to prevent critics from lambasting its violence. But, as Peter Travers notes in his review of the film in Rolling Stone magazine, "It's not satire to skewer idiots. Satire respects the insidious power of its targets." Stone consistently steps outside the boundaries of satire because his characters are so one-dimensional. Gale's enthusiasm for violence increases to the point of ridiculousness as he loses it in the interview when he starts ranting about the U.S. invasion of Grenada and starts yelling "I'm alive" once he shoots a gun. At this point, Stone's critique of violence falls apart. He makes Gale into a caricature instead of a character and shows him to be entirely irrational. As we know from the success of current talk show stars like Geraldo Rivera and Rush Limbaugh, hosts are not popular because they are irrational, but because they appear to be so completely rational. [End page 114]
Likewise, Stone makes easy targets out of corrupt prison warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) and cop Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), whose appetite for sex rivals Mickey's and Mallory's love for murder. McClusky and Scagnetti are just as insidious as Mickey and Mallory, yet their characters are so exaggerated, it's hard to see their depictions as a critique of criminal justice. McClusky rules his prison with an ironfist and is easily duped by Gale's offer to make him a star. Scagnetti, too, has yielded to the lure of the media, and law enforcement officials read his book Scagnetti on Scagnetti religiously. Neither of these characters contains the balance of deceit and intelligence personified in a figure like F.B.I. agent Jack Crawford in The Silence of Lambs, a movie that criticized serial killing and officially-sanctioned methods of detection without the didacticism of Killers.
Much of the controversy concerning Killers stems from its violence. According to an article in Time magazine, the film went through several cuts to receive its R rating (150 shots were reportedly cut), but the violence is not really so extreme. As Stone himself says in an interview conducted on America Online, "I don't believe that there is any single shot in the film that is gruesome or gratuitous. The violence is absurd and over the top and satiric." The violence in Killers should not elicit outrage. Rather, viewers should be outraged that Stone employs such seductive methods of filmmaking (the movie is beautifully shot and includes stunning animation and graphics) to make such a moralistic statement. The disjunctive jumps from color to black and white and the use of different types of film makes the movie appealing to the MTV Generation, yet it also harbors animosity toward a fast food, television-oriented generation that would glamorize serial killers like Mickey and Mallory.
Killers' soundtrack contains all the subtlety the movie lacks. Assembled by Trent Renzor, the talented leader of the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, the music captures a variety of emotions, adding a tenderness at appropriate moments with songs like Bob Dylan's "You Belong to Me" and Cowboy Junkies' cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane." Opening and closing with two tracks by Leonard Cohen (who appropriately sings "I've seen the future/and it is murder" on the closing number) and balanced by tracks such as Nine Inch Nails' empathetic "A Warm Place," Patti Smith's irreverent "Rock & Roll Nigger," and Rage Against the Machine's [End page 115] anti-authoritarian anthem "Take the Power Back," the nearly 100 pieces of music used in the film represent a pastiche of American popular culture, often adding much-needed pathos. You can almost tell the songs were picked by someone who cared for rather than despised youth culture.
Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg criticized Killers because it "does not foresee or even look toward the lunacy at the end of the tunnel." But Killers does not even understand the present, much less the future. In the America Online interview, Stone said the media can create "mass hysteria" and "can demonize any individual it seeks to demonize," yet Killers does a fair amount of demonizing of its own. The film only adds fuel to the fear of crime and criminals spread by conservatives who would rather see a more controlled world than one in which people learn to think critically - even if they have "watched too much TV."
University of California, San Diego
Department of Literature [End page 116]
Oliver Stone in the Wired Auditorium on America Online August 16, 1944 10:15 - 11:15 ET.
Rosenberg, H. (1994). Stone's 'Killers' Shoots Wide as TV Critique. Los Angeles Times 31 Aug. 1994, F1.
Travers, P. (1994). Natural Born Killers. Rolling Stone, Sept. 8, 1994:83-87. [End page 117]