Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Acid's Greatest Hits #8: NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)

Oliver Stone is rare amongst that rare anomaly of craftsmanship-overkill directors who try to achieve the psychedelic effect via glossy bombast--ala Ken Russell or Terry Gilliam--in that he succeeds sometimes, through sheer reckless determination. A lot of it has to do with his macho choice of material: murderers, politicians, political murderers, combat troops, football sharks, Wall Street sharks, rock stars. But his ability to take a clear-eyed look at the threat of immanent death or financial destruction gives his film the thousand-yard stare of a true Vietnam vet, and shows a willingness to spin the moral compass. Desperate times, goes the Stone thesis, justify insanely over-the-top measures in order to crack reality's brittle shell wide open. Charlie Sheen may rat out his dark father Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas) in WALL STREET but we don't particularly love him for it. We'd certainly would rather watch Gecko ranting to his monitors than biological dad Martin Sheen playing blue-collar saint. Tom Berenger's cobra-like killer in PLATOON turns out to be a better soldier than Willem Dafoe's sweetie pie sergeant because he sinks to match the madness of his time, as does James Woods in SALVADOR. But in NATURAL BORN KILLERS there isn't a Dafoe or Woods or Sheen left to make sense of it all, and that's part of the film's charm, and undoing. In re-creating the wild highways of America as a shattered glass simulacrum, void of 'good guys', Stone encourages our emotional divestment to the point of disinterest. The message seems to be that the nominal heroes, the representatives of law and order--Tom Sizemore as a star detective and Tommy Lee Jones as a warden--are just as bad, perhaps even more savage than Micky and Mallory.

What makes them more "bad" than these two serial killers in this sense then is that is that they have less charisma. They're too sweaty and full of craven sneers. Plus: they're not in love, or prone to hallucinations. They got no 'it' factor.

Stalin his orgasm... for her pleasure
It's the charisma and the love that counts and in the end disinterest is overcome through the two actors' determination to keep a sweet and loving humanity in their relationship: Juliette Lewis, Woody Harrelson each bring enough oomph to save the mess from toppling into "who cares?" country and even, now and again, to take some kind of goofball wing - especially when a truly odious monster like Rodney Dangerfield appears (in a sitcom flashback) as Mallory's incestuous dad. Trent Reznor's ingenious score, a mash-up of everything from Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nig**r" to Jane's Addiction, helps keep the ball rolling and we never even realize how much we've come to care until the loving couple are separated after their arrest. No matter how many times you see it, no matter how bludgeoned you are by the cartoon violence that's come before, their jailbreak reunion never fails to provide a tearful catharsis and a sense of romantic triumph.

Where Oliver Stone also rises above Gilliam and Russell bombast is there is no doubt this man has walked the walk, psychedelically speaking. He's quite open about it in interviews, and the thumbprint of the trickster is heavy on his brow, which is a very paradoxical weight for the trickster thumbprint. Yes, the overall Stone bombast can wear thin if you're in a peaceful mood, but it's great when you're wasted, and even better when you're really wasted, as in on the third night of a bender, or waking up out of a black-out and discovering it on the hotel room's HBO along with a still half-full bottle of vodka on the bureau, both are situations I can personally vouch for. And the scene where Micky and Mallory take mushrooms in the desert is so vivid I feel it in my pineal gland. They wind up, as high desert voyagers will, in the strange tepee of an ancient Native American, who reads "Too Much TV" on their shirts and realizes almost instantly he's already as good as dead. The presence of many rattlesnakes on the ground is another indication of the psychedelic effect, the feeling that dangerous critters are all around, and that being bitten by a venomous snake has, in some sense, already happened to you before you are even bit... if you even really are. Just thinking about it gives you the feeling of being bit. You jerk up your arm from the sting and then realize there's no bite.

Stone gets that. He knows and is able to capture how, in the realms of the psychedelic spore, all shadows take on serpentine dimensions, how the world breathes before you and around you, the dragon that Merlin talks of in EXCALIBUR. Seeing our sociopathic lovers stagger through an all-night drug mart is to remember perhaps doing the same thing yourself once, racing down twisting over-lit store aisles at 4:20 in the morning, your brain exploding with overpowering images of blood and carnage and thoughts you took too much of whatever you took--hopefully not datrura root--and are going to die, trying to find the gallon-size bottle of Nyquil to knock you unconscious before you start screaming and laughing at the same time and then can't stop, and then someone calls the cops who call your parents. Bummer! That's why you got to be cool, man, and keep it together.

There are lots of moments of great revenge along the way, from the beating up of Rodney Dangerfield through to the scene illustrated below. The idea here is that all of society has committed a heinous crime against our violent young lovers, either through inbred sexist piggery or accompanying tolerance of same. Stone's a deconstructing over-thinker like the Scotts Ridley and Tony, the Terry Gilliam, etc., but at least where they refuse to leave the safety of a corny core narrative, Stone plunges into the abyss of Godardian self-reflexive post-modernism --everything from French New Wave to McDonald's, even the sailor who does the soft shoe. Even if stretches bore you or seem trite it's never long before there's another memorable set piece or off-the-cuff cuff-offing. Just don't, if you end up going on a killing spree after watching it a hundred times, let your parents sue Oliver Stone, or me. If you play it backwards you'll get the real Satanic message of the film: All is Love... All is love. Kill your ego first, and the asses will follow, one by one, like ducks in a shooting gallery.

1 comment:

  1. The best ting I have to say about this is I was working at a book shop in a mall in Clifton Park NY when the film was running in theaters when a friend came in from a matinee and said "I just saw Natural Born Film makers." My laughter echoed through the entire complex. He seemed to nail it perfectly even though i found much to admire in the movie. Not much of a story I admit. I may be running dry. How much more can you take from me??


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