Director Oliver Stone is no stranger to controversy. After tackling the fallout of a presidential assassination in ‘JFK,’ skewering the madness of the Vietnam War in ‘Platoon,’ and examining society’s treatment of returning veterans in ‘Born on the Fourth of July,’ the director has set his sights on the current Bush administration with a satirical expose titled ‘W.’ Even so, nothing in Stone’s filmography has earned disgust, debate, and discourse as quickly and as readily as 1994’s ‘Natural Born Killers’ -- a hyperactive arthouse piece if ever there was one, Stone’s sardonic dissection of America’s media-culture certainly didn’t assuage his taxing reputation. The film not only continues to split audiences and critics alike, it has been accused of influencing killing sprees, school shootings, and homicides for more than a decade.
’Natural Born Killers’ follows the viciously jarring roadtrip of star-crossed lovers/serial killers Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis). The murderous pair have become media sensations by leaving a single survivor in each killzone to tell the tale of their latest crimes. Even so, the source of their enthusiasm is unclear, the magnitude of their psychological disorders is immeasurable, and their endgame is a mystery. Along the way, they outwit a loathsome and unpredictable detective (Tom Sizemore), a self-absorbed television journalist (Robert Downey Jr.), and a sickeningly amoral prison warden (Tommy Lee Jones). The ensuing media attention rockets Mickey and Mallory into superstardom and immortalizes their dark deeds in the eyes of a soulless American public.
Although I’ve seen ‘Natural Born Killers’ more than a half-dozen times over the years, I’m never quite sure if I actually enjoy the experience. Stone provides a scathing analysis of our media’s bloodlust (as well as our culture’s inability to look away), but he paints such a frenzied and despondent portrait that his point often gets lost in the mix. The director hurls 35mm, 16mm, 8mm, and SD video footage onto the screen, drenching each one in multiple palettes, nauseating edits, and bizarre visual tangents including animation. His characters are even more erratic, comprising a lineup of the most intimidating souls one could imagine. Mickey and Mallory actually look tame compared to Sizemore’s disquieting detective and Jones’ wild warden -- no one will argue that the “law” isn’t particularly well represented in Stone’s serial killer acid-trip.
Admittedly, ’Natural Born Killers’ is host to scenes of genuine brilliance, most of which revolve around Downey Jr’s reporter, Wayne Gale. The actor really nails the two-faced nature of a media celebrity and delivers a more balanced performance than anyone else in the film. Unfortunately, there are a slew of scenes that transform the film into a burlesque parade of disturbing, confusing, and unsettling imagery. While my reaction to Stone’s portrayal of depravity is probably exactly what he intended, I can’t help but feel guarded against what he’s working so hard to shovel into my brain. Not to overstate things, but in the midst of all the film’s insanity, there’s something distinctly familiar and authentic about the nature of evil Stone is depicting. Sure, it’s as visually and thematically unhinged as a Baz Luhrmann flick, but it’s this dose of unexpected realism that actually allows the film to resonate.
In the end, ‘Natural Born Killers’ is an experimental film that should be viewed for the experience it provides rather than a rational plot or compelling cast of characters. While it does offer some interesting performances and plenty of challenging assertions, it’s too cynical and incoherent to live up to Stone’s lofty ambitions. As it stands, pessimists and gorehounds may get more out of Stone’s media assault than others, but I doubt many viewers will genuinely enjoy the film in every regard.
(Note that the Blu-ray edition of ‘Natural Born Killers’ only includes the 119-minute R-rated theatrical cut of the film -- the extended Director’s Cut is still only available on DVD.)
Because Stone deliberately compiled ‘Natural Born Killers’ from a hodgepodge of cameras and sources, the film’s Blu-ray debut is a tough one to score. Yes, the disc features a seemingly faithful 1080p/VC-1 encoded presentation, but it initially makes the film’s intentional onslaught of grain, color bleeding, artifacting, and noise more intrusive than it’s ever been before. Thankfully, a direct comparison to the standard DVD reveals other fundamental visual enhancements -- the palette is richer, contrast is more vibrant, and blacks are inkier, deepening shadows and increasing the overall depth of the image. Shots filmed with traditional stock look quite good, boasting clean edges, crisp textures, and plenty of fine detail that was muddled in previous presentations. The unstable nature of shifty cinematography prevents these scenes from looking as refined as those on other high-def releases, but each one looks substantially better than it does on the DVD.
Of course, Stone filmed many scenes with SD cameras whose footage is only marginally improved by the high-def transfer. His stylistic decisions make it difficult to discern if there are any significant encoding issues in Warner’s encode since it’s impossible to tell what discrepancies the director did and didn’t intend. To top it all off, whites are often hot, delineation is oppressive, and crushing is a frequent problem. Ultimately, I suppose it all works in Stone’s favor. All I can say for sure is that the Blu-ray edition of ‘Natural Born Killers’ offers the best transfer available on the market. Fans braced for its varying quality and unrelenting inconsistency should be satisfied with the results.
’Natural Born Killers’ features a startling Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track that overcomes the inconsistencies of its source material more proficiently than the disc’s video transfer. Gunfire and other low-end supported sound effects don’t just utilize LFE pulses, they inhabit them. It actually helps the film’s violence sound as grotesque and otherworldly as it appears – the sound designers do a fantastic job making the on-screen atrocities more unbearable to watch. The rear speakers help in this regard as well, using ambience and aggressive acoustics to increase the nuttiness and creepiness of the film's more bizarre moments (chief among them the scenes that follow Mickey and Mallory’s exploits in the desert). Better still, dialogue is generally clear and well prioritized, leaving nothing to the imagination. The soundfield lurches into the front speakers every time the film shifts to Gale’s perspective, but for the most part these audible transitions aren’t as jarring as one might expect.
The only real complaint I have (aside from some questionable stylistic choices) is that tinny dialogue and shallow bass tones often dominate the scenes shot with SD cameras. I suppose clipping the soundscape makes their footage more convincing, but it fails to maintain the power other films like ’28 Days Later’ and ‘Cloverfield’ have delivered despite a handheld camera aesthetic. All in all, a quick comparison to the Dolby Digital mix on the DVD makes it evident that the best way to hear ‘Natural Born Killers’ is on Blu-ray. Once again, fans should be more than pleased with the upgrade.
For some strange reason, Warner decided to port over all of the special features from the film’s Theatrical Cut DVD except for an engaging behind-the-scenes documentary called “Chaos Rising: The Storm Around Natural Born Killers.” While the studio has bundled the disc in its new hardcover casing (that includes a full color booklet), it can’t make up for the missing supplemental material.
’Natural Born Killers’ will continue to divide audiences and critics for as long as it’s around. Even today, it has a lot to say about modern media culture and the way audiences respond to violence and depravity. Sadly, it’s housed within a difficult cinematic framework that works better for broad interpretation than serious revelation. The Blu-ray edition of ‘Natural Born Killers’ may feature a vibrant and faithful video transfer, a strong TrueHD audio track, and an adequate collection of supplements, but anyone approaching this title should definitely rent the film before giving this release any serious purchase consideration.