Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Natural Born Killers: Special Edition (1994)
Studio Line: Warner Bros. - The media made them superstars.

They didn't win a Nobel Prize, throw a record fastball or travel another acceptable path to fame. What fugitive lovers Mickey and Mallory did was kill people. Lots of people. The media took care of the rest.

Three-time Academy Award winner Oliver Stone (JFK, Platoon) delivers a powerful movie experience unlike any other: Natural Born Killers, a visually dazzling, wickedly funny slam of violence and media obsession that's "the most radical film any major studio has released since A Clockwork Orange" (Stephen Schiff, The New Yorker). As Mickey and Mallory, Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis portray the kind of crazymixedup kids a demon has nightmares about. And Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore and Rodney Dangerfield make vivid impressions in this wild ride that packs a wallop.

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, O-Lan Jones, Ed White
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English, Spanish, French, Portuguese; closed-captioned; 40 chapters; rated R; 119 min.; $24.98; street date 1/16/01.
Supplements: Feature-Length Audio Commentary by Writer/Director Oliver Stone; Behind-The-Scenes Documentary "Chaos Rising: The Storm Around Natural Born Killers"; Deleted Scenes And Alternate Ending; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | The Oliver Stone Collection

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/A-/B+

Before I saw Natural Born Killers during its theatrical run in 1994, I’d heard largely positive comments about it. The main thing going for Oliver Stone’s commentary on American culture appeared to be its aggressiveness and fierce imagery; apparently this was a movie that would assault the senses and leave no stone (pun intended) unturned.

While I agreed that the film was a loud and violent mix of pieces, I didn’t see it as anything more than a statement of the obvious. More than six years later, I took in the movie a second time and came to the same conclusion. Although Stone seems to believe that he made a deep and meaningful film, the truth is that NBK is nothing more than so much noise and activity with little substance behind it.

Stone seems to be an arrogant, self-absorbed man, and never have those tendencies appeared more clear than during NBK. The film depicts a murdering rampage effected by Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis), a white-trash couple who both come from abusive backgrounds. They kill for little reason other than sheer pleasure involved, and most of the film’s first half depicts this side of the story. During the second part, the two are in jail and the movie builds toward a climax in which Mickey will be interviewed on live TV after the Super Bowl; sleaze journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.) attempts to use the popularity of M&M to boost his own show, “American Maniacs”.

Stone appears to believe that anyone who doesn’t “get” NBK is simply too old, staid, or misled. Granted, he’s right on some accounts. Many people took it too seriously and didn’t see that it was a satire. I had no problem with that aspect, as it did appear clear that the movie wasn’t supposed to be truly reality-based. While I thought it left the realms of sensibility too often - the world-wide adulation experienced by M&M seemed asinine to me - but I can’t fault the film’s over-the-top nature.

Where I run into problems stems from the movie’s condescending attitude and general pointlessness. In NBK, we discover the remarkable concepts that a) the media exploit misery and pander to the lowest common denominator, and b) many folks aren’t too bright and they eat up this junk. In a world where Jerry Springer was allowed to make a feature film, none of this information comes as a surprise.

Had Stone approached the topic with any form of understanding of or compassion for his subject, the film might have been a more compelling exploration of the nature of popular society. However, Stone’s extreme disdain for these elements comes through with ferocity at all times. He has no understanding of the reasons why some people think and behave these ways, and he clearly feels nothing but disgust for all involved.

I won’t defend trash TV, but I simply don’t get the point of Stone’s exploration in NBK. It feels like nothing more than simple back-patting; he reminds himself how smart and civilized he is while he tells us how dumb we are. His arguments against those who dislike the film follow the same lines; clearly they “don’t get it”, which implies a level of intelligence lower than his.

Stone is definitely an intelligent man, but he misfired during Natural Born Killers. The movie provides a reasonably entertaining piece of junk, but it lacks any form of depth. NBK is nothing more than artificial blather that lets some self-inflated blowhards feel superior to the great unwashed.

The DVD:

Natural Born Killers appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. To try to present a unified opinion of this film’s visual quality is nearly impossible; NBK combines a radical variety of different film techniques and stocks that rarely stayed the same for more than a few seconds. I’ll attempt to make some general comments, but remember that variations frequently occur.

Sharpness seemed consistently good. Any instances of softness were clearly due to the director’s intentions, and the vast majority of the movie looked crisp and detailed. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns. Numerous print flaws appeared - most often in the form of film grain, which could become quite heavy - but these also were intentional. Not only did a lot of grain result from the use of different film stocks - Stone utilized Super 8mm at times, plus 16mm and videotape in addition to the standard 35mm - but Stone actually optically created grain in some scenes to give the movie a grittier appearance. As such, expect lots of ugly material, but don’t blame the transfer; it’s all intentional.

Colors vary from natural and real to wildly surrealistic and excessively saturated. That said, I thought the DVD handled the wide variety of hues with aplomb. Even when the image featured intensely heavy reds or thick greens, they always seemed appropriate and fairly clear; there were no signs of noise or bleeding to mar the presentation. Black levels came across as deep and rich, and shadow detail seemed nicely dark but not too heavy. Ultimately, too much of Natural Born Killers looked ugly - though intentionally so - for me to give it a grade above a “B+”. However, I just want to reiterate that I do not blame the transfer for this; I believe the DVD accurately reproduces the original material.

I found it easier to judge the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of NBK. The soundfield generally favored the forward spectrum as it presented a loud and immersive presence. As one might expect from such an assaultive movie, the mix came at me with a lot of sound at all times, and the material seemed to blend together well. The music showed especially prominent presence, and effects were also integrated neatly. The surrounds started out somewhat slowly, but as the film progressed they became more involved and ultimately created a broad and encompassing environment.

Audio quality seemed strong. Dialogue consistently came across as clear and natural, with no concerns related to edginess or intelligibility. Effects were bold and convincing. From the quietest bird chirps to the loudest gunfire, these elements seemed clean and realistic (or hyper-realistic, as the case may be) and lacked distortion. Music seemed especially involving and bright. The songs were clear and deep, with some excellent bass response and tight highs. Ultimately, the soundtrack of Natural Born Killers nicely reinforced its visuals.

On this DVD, we find a good package of supplements, starting with an audio commentary from director Stone. To date, this was the fifth of his tracks I’ve screened, and it was possibly the most curious. Stone presented his usual chatty self, but his statements lacked the depth found during commentaries like those he recorded for Heaven and Earth and Wall Street.

Of the five I’ve heard, this one is the most conventional, though it just barely edges out the commentary for Any Given Sunday in that regard. However, since AGS is a much more conventional film than NBK, that’s not much of a surprise; Stone’s lack of passion during the NBK track did catch me off guard, however.

On the others, Stone tended to go off onto wild tangents that discussed history and philosophy among other elements. His remarks for NBK stuck much more closely to the usual track. Essentially Stone just talks about various elements of the production or he offers minor interpretation of the story. The latter aspects are fairly superficial and do relatively little to explain his intentions or the issues he raises. Frankly, I think this is his unconscious admission that NBK really is a shallow and obvious film, but maybe that’s just me. In any case, I actually enjoyed much of the track; even at his worst, Stone remains interesting. I simply found this experience less gratifying than the others I’ve heard.

Note that the “Director’s Cut” DVD of NBK also includes a commentary from Stone. I never saw that disc, so I can’t compare the two, but I don’t believe that this is the same track. I’m under the impression this DVD offers a new commentary.

Next we get “Chaos Rising: The Storm Around NBK”, a documentary about the making of the movie. This 26 and a half minute program features interviews with various cast and crew members interspersed with clips from the film and shots from the set. As a whole, it’s a fairly interesting piece. We get a good impression of how the shoot went, and there’s some nice discussion of the film’s impact. It’s a solid feature that didn’t make me appreciate the movie to any higher degree - I still think it’s simplistic and inane - but I enjoyed the ride nonetheless.

A variety of “Deleted Scenes” appear, including an “Alternate Ending” that can be found separately. The latter features an introduction from Stone that discusses it, and it lasts four minutes and 55 seconds. It’s decent but not spectacular.

The six other deleted scenes run between two minutes and nine minutes, 55 seconds for a total of 24 minutes and 35 seconds. These clips can be viewed with or without introductions from Stone; the running times include Stone’s remarks. All of the pieces are interesting, though one can easily understand why Stone cut them. For example, a courtroom scene in which Mickey cross-examines a witness is very entertaining, but it would have been very out of place in the completed film. Stone’s remarks discuss the reasons for their removal.

More commentary from Stone appears in the “Charlie Rose Interviews”. Here we find 11 minutes and 40 seconds of footage in which Stone and Rose discuss the film and reactions to it. The clips are fairly compelling, though Stone offers nothing new here.

“Cast and Crew” provides filmographies for the four main actors - Harrelson, Lewis, Downey and Tommy Lee Jones - plus a short biography of Stone. Lastly, the DVD features the film’s theatrical trailer.

Natural Born Killers remains one of Oliver Stone’s most controversial films, though the attention it’s received seems unwarranted. Despite its lack of intelligence or insight, many appear to view it as a clever exploration of the place of media in modern society. Unfortunately, it simply reiterates a great deal of information that seems quite evident to anyone with half a brain and it never achieves anything worthwhile, though it can be a trippy and exciting ride. The DVD provides purposefully inconsistent but strong picture plus solid sound and a slew of fairly good extras. I didn’t like Natural Born Killers, but I think the movie deserves a look; it’s an interesting enough piece to occasionally overcome its multiple flaws.

The new Special Edition of Natural Born Killers can be purchased through a number of sources. It can be found on its own with a retail price of $24.98, or it can be acquired through the Oliver Stone Collection boxed sets; NBK appears in both the 6-movie and 10-movies assortments.

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