Natural Born Killers (1994)
Runtime: 2 hours 1 minute
Rating: NC-17 (R if theatrical cut)
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Sizemore, and Tommy Lee Jones
“The whole world is coming to an end, Mal,” Mickey Knox professes to his beloved in the opening minutes of three time Oscar winning director Oliver Stone’s infamously divisive Natural Born Killers. Initially a Quentin Tarantino screenplay edited into an Oliver Stone script, Natural Born Killers tells the story of Mickey and Mallory Knox, two prior-functioning-members-of-society-turned-psychopathic-love-struck-murderers, as they kill their way cross country, unwittingly drawing mass media attention and adoration from patrons around the world for their shameless moral depravity. Made famous for its cast of dedicated performances, impressive psychedelic imagery, and casual ultra-violence, the cult classic (and one of my personal favorite movies) is typically dismissed in critic circles for its lack of thematic subtlety and perceived nuance, Stone’s provocative satire has more or less come to fruition in reality, albeit not exactly on the same terms the film’s rhetorical detractors insists it’s operating, nor of its native epoch. Is it true that mainstream media consistently covets societal violence for financial gain? Of course – TV industry mantras like, “if it bleeds, it leads” should attest to that operational truth – and the film goes to extreme lengths to make this explicitly clear. However, despite the seemingly unoriginal social commentary, there is a figurative in to a much more cognitive perspective on mass media’s complacency in the working of the current power structures that inadvertently spawn the socio-political nihilism that comes to embody Mickey and Mickey.
To get to that commentary, we must first reframe the film’s content as being purely symbolic; because once we let go of our expectations of “valid” artistic form, Stone’s stylistics excesses begin to operate in service of a much more cohesive message spelling a cautionary, and stimulative, simulation of the logical outcome of exploitation culture. Then we must first divorce the film’s subtext from the exclusive topic of the media and commodified violence, for the problem the narrative addresses is much larger than any single social issue. ***plot spoilers follow***
When we first meet the killer couple terrorizing a group of diner patrons in the opening prologue, Mickey and Mallory have already at this point fully embraced their nihilistic romance, engaging in social ceremony only when priming their next set of unsuspecting victims for slaughter. Surely, Mickey and Mallory are evil people; they casually murder innocents for kicks and giggles, and yet we’re expected to accept these characters as our protagonists. We’re quickly provided in the first act the “why” these characters are the way they are with a sitcom-ized flashback showing Mallory’s life pre-Mickey Knox. Constantly berated and harassed by her deadbeat, narcissistic father while her spineless mother bends to his every whim, Mallory and her perverse nuclear family is indicative of a common tendency of American families to manifest the greater vices of the current social order through its interfamilial relationships. We learn Mickey too suffered a hard childhood under a violent, drunk father, as did his father before him and so forth, who would hurt him and his mother. The two tortured souls meet for the first time during one of Mickey’s deli deliveries to Mallory’s residence, falling in love at first sight. The two quickly decide to steal her father’s car to runaway in rebellion. Naturally, this upsets her father, who has Mallory returned home and Mickey thrown in jail. Effectively dooming Mallory to a, likely short, life of incestuous rape and chastisement.
True loves’ embrace in the face of despair forces Mickey and Mallory to come to the existential realization that no one is coming to save them from the world as it presently exists; and with every sign indicating a perpetual worsening of the status quo, what rational reason do they have to continue to obediently suffer in service of a governing framework that has arbitrary deemed them unworthy of a pleasant life? What universal law mandates that they have to accept the misery they’re equivocally doomed to endure for civility’s sake? Well, none. There aren’t any. As functioning members of society we all make a conscious, virtually oblivious, effort to uphold the present socio-economic state of being – a social contract – through our participation in it (i.e. the jobs we work, the products we buy, and the political agency we choose invoke), with the promise that if we comply, we will be free to live without fear of arbitrary violence. As far as Mickey and Mallory are concerned, that deal has been irreversibly broken and every individual citizen who actively buttresses the functions of domination that define Capitalism by these means is by consequence guilty of abetting all peril resulting from it. This is why the soon-to-be-mass-murdering-couple have no qualms massacring any civilian they come across (with the exception being a hospitable Native American elder who lives off indigenous land and hence does not fit into their otherwise indiscriminate victim criteria). This is also not to say that Mickey and Mallory are ethically justified in their cruel avenue of expression against people who are simply ignorant of the outcome of their complacency is, but that their actions are rationally valid.
Upon escaping jail, Mickey comes to rescue Mallory from her evil father. They murder Mallory’s parents before setting off on their campaign of selfish carnage and debauchery. It’s not too long before they become pop culture icons among the likes of Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer, inspiring sensational media attention and true crime TV specials about them. One TV personality in particular, Wayne Gale (played by an especially hammy Robert Downey Jr.), comes to embody the very essence of the mainstream media. After Mickey and Mallory are captured by Detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) and imprisoned under the supervision of prison Warden Dwight McClusky (an even hammier Tommy Lee Jones), more on them shortly, Wayne aims to be the true crime “reporter” to secure the coveted Mickey Knox interview for a post-Super Bowl broadcast, a ripe “ratings” ground. On camera, he puts on the socially expected show of pathos and virtue signaling, but off camera he’s revealed to be even more ethically fluid than the killers he’s investigating. His reckless pursuit for ratings and the riches that come with it, ends up being the final catalyst for the avalanche of utter chaos that comes in film’s third act.
Clearly, Downey’s absurdist depiction of eccentric true crime reporter is not to be taken at face value but is instead an aesthetic criticism and the real mass “news” media’s Pavlovian drive to maximize ratings/viewership – the metric of profit in media spaces – foremost. That is, media bodies fixated on amassing profit strategically cover specific news content, ideally violence and crime, with the ulterior motive of making more money. Note that violence does not just mean physical acts of violence but also encompasses acts of rhetorical, institutional, and economic violence, as regularly committed by establishment politicians, “partisan” news networks, and stubborn Capitalists (conglomerate control). In 1964, Canadian professor and early media theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, the medium is the message, which encapsulates the notion that the content of what is being communicated is semantically secondary to the context, or literal medium, by which it is received. For example, recall the recent field test of Donald Trump’s national presidential alert system, that directly sent a dummy message to the mobile phone of every US civilian across the country. Doesn’t really seem like a big deal given the stated intent – we already have various means of mass communication in place for emergency situations. But when we consider the message inherent to the method it was transmitted and by whom, that seemingly procedural demonstration takes on a more sinister, authoritarian connotation. Likewise with a media staple like the evening news, the presumed objective of the programming is to inform the people of information deemed vital by the “appropriate bodies.” Yet, the evening news is always broadcast with regular commercial breaks and corporate sponsorships. Surely, the operational cost of local and national news coverage could easily be covered with state/federal allocated funds considering how instrumental the media industry is to social consciousness, but still we find the workings of Capitalism fixing the intent of the medium, in the film’s case television (but also extends to print and social media), to the accumulation of capital. Maximal ratings means maximal viewership which means maximal revenue from advertisers/paying subscribers. Wayne Gale’s motive behind interviewing Mickey on live TV is not to deepen society’s understanding of an evil person, but to capitalize on society’s cultivated obsession with violence. Wayne’s job is then to lure minds to the screens by provocation at all costs, as we later see him still in-character live commentating while a full blown prison riot rages around him and his escapee caravan.
Back to Detective Scagnetti and Warden McClusky for a moment. Sizemore’s Scagnetti comes into the film somewhere in the middle of the second act, characterized as a lawful evil who, while vigilant in apprehending Mickey and Mallory, gleefully indulges in carnage of his own with impunity (e.g. the current problem of law enforcement murdering civilians with contrived cause). Scagnetti can see through the media’s moralistic veil, but considers himself “above” it and so finds Wayne Gale harmless. Warden McClusky on the other hand, is disturbed by Wayne’s insistence of agitating the state of order. He knows that giving a platform to a chaotic voice like Mickey Knox’s can very easily spell trouble amongst the like-imprisoned folk that surround them all; his concerns prove correct as Mickey’s televised sermon spawns the hellish prison riot.
By now, the parable at work should be clear. Mickey and Mallory embody the logical outcome of Capitalist society as it presently exists – chaos incarnate. Wayne Gale (contemporary mass media), the literal interface between members of society and the sensational realism they consume as entertainment in the name of corporate profit. Detective Scagnetti and Warden McClusky convey the institutions of law and order, respectively. Tasked by the state to contain society’s criminal element, Scagnetti and McClusky are incapable of containing the chaos brought on by Mickey and Mallory, as they are both outwitted and overwhelmed by the sheer ferocity of their infectious rage. The moral anarchy inevitably spawned in reaction to the contradictions of this hierarchal society cannot be contained by law enforcement, who only exist to address the disruptive symptoms of an inherently self-destructive framework, nor can the media conveniently decide when to reinstate “civility.”
After ultimately killing Scagnetti and McClusky (whom is literally torn to pieces by rioting prisoners), Mickey and Mallory’s final victim before retirement from mass murder is none other than Wayne Gale, the last surviving TV crew member following all the action. Despite being a hostage during their prison escape, Gale elects to embrace the carnage, seeking solidarity with Mickey and Mallory. They don’t buy it for one second. They may find him amusing, but Mickey and Mallory are very conscious of what it is Wayne Gale represents and how he and his colleagues are instrumental in perpetuating the very conditions that birthed the Mickeys and Mallorys of the world. This is perhaps the defining moment of Natural Born Killers, and ironically the most misconstrued scene in the film. The obvious implication is that Mickey and Mallory’s final hooray is a lasting spite of the media and its hypocritical proliferation of violence, but considering the fact that at no point in the film do either of the two intentionally take up the revolutionary burden on behalf of humanity or anything of the sort, it’s doubtful they are making a conscious political statement. As the interface by which the conglomerates and oligarchs that really run things present the world to its subjects, the media is the very lens through which we, the subject, perceive ourselves and one another outside of the reality of our immediate vicinity. For this reason, mass media is imperative to any civilization. Naturally, the character of any society’s aggregate media will be determined by the form of its underlying economic framework, in the our case, Capitalism. The fundamental problem here begins and ends with Capitalism. It doesn’t matter if it’s “better” than the other alternative(s); it’s the governing ideology under which this crisis has arisen.
Mickey wasn’t wrong when he declared “it the end of the world.” It’s true. For the first time in human history, our species faces the dire inevitability of increasingly extreme weather conditions spurred on by climate change while political atrocity sprouts up around the globe in the form of authoritarian regimes and far-right national populist movements. The world’s super wealthy have given up on trying to save the planet from the climate ruin they’ve directly nurtured over the past century and a half: choosing instead to pursue ways to surmount the burden of their Earthly confinement. The present institution of law and order are functionally incapable of rectifying the situation as time and time again, national leadership purposely exacerbate the crisis, out of malice or ignorance, instead of providing aid the people who need help from the elements (e.g. the horrid US response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and most recently the spiteful reaction/response to the devastation wildfire here in California from national leadership). No institutional power is coming to save us (*cough* liberals *cough*). If we aim to survive going forward, we must begin to wield our local agency to help ourselves. Again, it’s important to note that, while Mickey and Mallory are indeed chaotic beings, they are merely products of their unique historical circumstance and hence are driven by a desire to live on their own terms, not by suicidal nihilism. The goal isn’t to die in a hail of bullets but to find some kind of resolve amidst the so-called mess of things. Mickey and Mallory could let Gale go, since he is in fact the sole survivor in their latest spout of violence, but there’s one stipulation standing: the camera, which has been live broadcasting to the world since the prison riot broke out. This is to say, the physical infrastructure of the media isn’t the problem, the motives behind its use is – precisely the very motives Gale internalizes in his identity. A destruction, symbolic or otherwise, of mainstream media must take place before any meaningful progress towards existential reconciliation can take place: specifically, a destruction of its corrupting Capitalist drives (the execution/destruction of Wayne Gale).
I’m not sure I’ve seen another movie as thoroughly paradoxical as Natural Born Killers. Simultaneously heavy-handed and subtle, Oliver Stone cleverly captures the urgency of the waging ideological war for humankind’s future. This conflict is bigger than anyone one TV network or president and addressing it will require drastic action and vigilance, let it be proactive or reactive. It’s no mistake that Stone commits to the topic of the media. A particularly outspoken critic of American politics, Stone has delivered some the most iconic and seminal films about America (e.g. Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and JFK). As good as his more critically lauded projects are, I can’t help but feel like Natural Born Killers is his most of-the-moment work that couldn’t be truer in 2018.