Natural Born Killers, Oliver Stone’s shrill, empty-headed “satire” of our violence-loving media culture, probably ranks among the most controversial films of the ‘90s. It’s almost certainly among the most annoying. The film’s project is to inundate the viewer with the type of hyperkinetic MTV-style imagery that Stone suggests leads to and mirrors the acts of mass murderers committed by Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis). To these ends, Stone employs the techniques—shifting film stocks, color filters, unnatural camera angles, non-diegetic inserts, and so on—he used to such success in JFK and, later, Nixon. But while those films used the same tricks purposefully, Natural Born Killers finds Stone throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks. The result is an unpleasant mess, aesthetically and ideologically.
It’s also the kind of film that seems designed to head off criticism. Any complaints against Natural Born Killers could easily be cited as virtues. The flashy, irritating imagery? The broad, tone-deaf performances? The distasteful Looney Tunes attitude toward real-world violence? All part of the point, all meant to evoke Stone’s critique of American popular culture. Well, yeah, okay. But that point is made perfectly well within about five minutes; everything after is an ugly, deadening repetition of the same old shit. Natural Born Killers has precisely one idea, and it isn’t even a very good one.
For a self-regarded counter-culture iconoclast like Stone, arguing that the American media cultivates and celebrates violence is, well, pretty lame. It’s a point that’s been made over and again by various cultural critics, and Stone’s take is even less convincing than most. Mickey and Mallory are set up as the sociopathic end result of an ADD culture, dehumanized by exposure to an endless stream of news, talk shows, sitcoms, movies, and trash journalism programs hosted by hacks like Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr., the film’s sole bright spot). But Stone doesn’t argue, reason, or even seem to think; he just hectors, all his sound and fury barely equaling the rhetorical sense of a schizophrenic homeless man preaching Armageddon. By film’s end, Stone’s injudicious use of his self-consciously “provocative” images has turned Natural Born Killers into precisely the thing Stone is trying to critique: a nasty, soulless celebration of everything cool and romantic about violence.