A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" might have played even more like a demented nightmare if it hadn't been for the O.J. Simpson case. Maybe Stone meant his movie as a warning about where we were headed, but because of Simpson it plays as an indictment of the way we are now. We are becoming a society more interested in crime and scandal than in anything else - more than in politics and the arts, certainly, and maybe even more than sports, unless crime is our new national sport.
If that's true, then Stone's movie is about the latest all-Americans, Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), two mass murderers who go on a killing spree across America, making sure everybody knows their names, so they get credit for their crimes. (Terrorists always claim "credit" rather than "blame.") The movie is not simply about their killings, however, but also about the way they electrify the media and exhilarate the public. (One teenager tells the TV cameras, "Mass murder is wrong. But if I were a mass murderer, I'd be Mickey and Mallory!") The boom in courtroom TV has given us long hours to study the faces of famous accused murderers; we have a better view than the jury. Looking into their faces, I sense a curious slackness, an inattention, as if the trial is a mirage, and their thoughts far away. If they're guilty, it's like they're rehearsing their excuses for the crime. If they're innocent, maybe those empty expressions mean the courtroom experience is so alien they can't process it. Not once since he was arraigned have I caught a shot of Simpson looking normal in any way I can understand. His expression always seems to be signifying, "Yes, but . . ." Oliver Stone captures this odd emptiness, this moral inattention, in the faces and behavior of Mickey and Mallory. They're on their own frequency. The casting is crucial: Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis are both capable of being frightening, both able to project amorality and disdain as easily as Jack Lemmon projects ingratiation. There is a scene where a lawman is trying to intimidate Lewis, and he throws his cigarette onto the floor of her cell. She steps on it and rubs it out with her bare foot. Set and match.
"Natural Born Killers" is not so much about the killers, however, as about the feeding frenzy they inspire. During the period of their rampage, they are the most famous people in America, and the media goes nuts. There are Mickey and Mallory fan clubs and T-shirts; tabloid TV is represented by a bloodthirsty journalist played by Robert Downey Jr., who is so thrilled by their fame he almost wants to embrace them. The people Mickey and Mallory touch in the law industry are elated to be handling the case; it gives them a brush with celebrity, and a tantalizing whiff of the brimstone that fascinates some cops.
Stone has never been a director known for understatement or subtlety. He'll do anything to get his effect, and that's one of the things I value about him. He understands that celebrity killers have achieved such a bizarre status in America that it's almost impossible to satirize the situation - to get beyond real life. But he goes for broke, in scenes of carnage like a prison riot, which is telecast live while the "host" gets caught up in the bloodlust.