Remember when Quentin Tarantino was a name you hadn’t heard much about? By 1994, that time was ancient history, as he followed up his directorial debut Reservoir Dogs (1992) with the film that made him a household name, Pulp Fiction (1994). But, that same year, controversial director Oliver Stone was looking to showcase the horrors of media sensationalism. He grabbed up one of Quentin’s scripts, and turned it into Natural Born Killers.
Since I’ve been a fan of Quentin’s since his debut Reservoir Dogs (1992), Natural Born Killers was naturally at the top of my to-see list. This was despite Tarantino divorcing himself from the script, thanks to the multiple revisions of his original story. By this point, the biggest thing I can remember about seeing the film in theaters was my inability to turn away from the screen. More than a decade later, would Natural Born Killers still keep my eyes glued, or had the film’s powerful effect faded in the intervening years?
Woody Harrelson, known mainly for his goofy Cheers (TV) bartending gig, blows up on the big screen as the psychotic Mickey Knox. He delivers a tour de force performance. He gives such a great performance, in fact, that both audiences and movie execs sat up and took notice. He would later follow-up that success in films like The People Vs. Larry Flynt, but he would never quite be able to achieve that odd mix of surprise and psycho-channeling as he did with Natural Born Killers.
Juliette Lewis, on the other hand, has always seemed a bit odd, so her turn into raving psycho Mallory Knox wasn’t as far of a stretch. Teaming her with Tom Sizemore, who turns out to play a cop gone over the edge quite perfectly, worked extremely well. So well, in fact, they were later re-teamed for Strange Days (1995) (which once again showcased Lewis, in a band, working her vocals in song as well as in speech).
Tommy Lee Jones pops up as a slimy hick of a warden who fans will easily love to hate, but Robert Downey Jr. really brings it home. He plays a Geraldo wannabe with such ease, the viewer wonders if he was popping the pills he so famously got caught for later on. As Downey’s Wayne Gale slowly begins a descent into a hell of his own making, he even gobbles down pills like candy in one sequence, reinforcing that idea.
Some naysayers took offense to Natural Born Killers when it was first released, saying it – like most of Tarantino’s work – was promoting uber-violence and creating heroes out of mass murderers. But those folks were kind of missing the entire point of Natural Born Killers. After all, the whole film is how the media sensationalizes killers like Mickey and Mallory, turning the likes of Manson, Bundy and Gacy into household names.
Okay, so it’s not exactly normal. With it’s inter-cut shots of animal wildlife, a sitcom providing a laugh track for Mallory’s dad and his unwanted advances on his own daughter, a trippy mushroom-induced encounter with an Indian, and it’s odd infatuation with opera during murder sequences, Natural Born Killers is anything but typical.
A visual assault on the senses, Natural Born Killers could easily have dissolved into utter chaos. But it’s got a lot going for it. Strong performances from it’s actors. A director able to navigate the muddied terrain. A media-bashing script originated by violence guru Quentin Tarantino. With all that, Natural Born Killers is still as raw a shock to the system as ever – and not an experience you’ll likely forget anytime soon.