Color, 1994, 121 mins.

Directed by Oliver Stone

Starring Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey, Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore, Rodney Dangerfield, Edie McClurg, Balthazar Getty, Steven Wright / Produced by Jane Hamsher, Don Murphy & Clayton Townshend / Written by Oliver Stone, Richard Rutowski & David Veloz (...and Quentin Tarantino) / Cinematography by Robert Richardson

Format: DVD - Image (MSRP $24.98)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) / Dolby Digital 5.1

After trying unsuccessfully to inject experimental film techniques into a straight movie biography format in The Doors, Oliver Stone decided three years later to just ignore any attempts at commercial filmmaking with Natural Born Killers, a shrieking descent into the director's own view of modern media-driven Hell. Slapping together virtually every kind of film format (Super 8, 16mm, B&W, video) and avant garde technique known to man, his jittery collage of operatic gore and black humor wound up on the MPAA chopping block and split audiences down the middle. Even today after its full restoration and lavish special edition treatment, the film continues to win praise for its daredevil visuals and damnation (most notably in courtrooms and from John Grisham) for its relentless onslaught of violence.

Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) like to kill people. Celebrated in the media as a kind of psychopathic, modern day Bonnie and Clyde, the couple always leaves a witness at their crime scenes to ensure their future folk legend status, while an equally deranged cop (Tom Sizemore) tries to track them down. Breaking with standard road movie tradition, the couple is captured about halfway into the film, leading to a second act which focuses on the exploitation of violence by the media (represented by Robert Downey, Jr.'s Aussie reporter) and the pure weirdness of the modern penal system (Tommy Lee Jones' hilariously over the top warden).

The most obvious appeal of Natural Born Killers lies in its breakneck pacing and visual style, accompanied by a hellish soundtrack alternating between perversely chosen golden oldies and Trent Reznor's brash song-score. All of the actors toss subtlety out the window from the opening moments, with Harrelson and Lewis barreling across the screen in performances which seem possessed by some unholy fusion of mind-altering substances and pure mental dementia. Thus, as a purely sensory joyride, the film's popularity as a catalog of resources available to the modern filmmaker is beyond reproach. Furthermore, this may be the most extreme example of that bizarre '90s trend, the hyper-violent romantic road movie, which also includes such seemingly disparate entries as Wild at Heart, The Doom Generation, and Kiss or Kill, among many others.

Unfortunately, Natural Born Killers also tries to be both a social commentary and a scathing satire, which is where it stumbles. Hard. Blissfully unaware of his own status as a self-manufactured media object, Stone directs his venom at an America which celebrates suffering and sucks the life force out of its human beings. Unfortunately, this message looks more trite with each passing year, resembling a clumsy junior high essay more than a finely crafting critique of modern society. Stone's final summation, which awkwardly fuses clips of Tonya Harding, O.J. Simpson, and the giant killer bunnies from Night of the Lepus, is ridiculous in all the wrong ways, and his attempts to be hip through absurdity ultimately wind up saying very little once the smoke clears. For every sequence that effectively hits a nerve, such as the I Love Mallory sitcom parody, another five flounder by to continue bashing home a point that was already made within the first ten minutes of the film. In essence, all of the unfair criticims hurled at George Romero's similarly themed Dawn of the Dead hold water far more here: the violence becomes dull and repetitious long before the end, and the jabs at modern consumerist mentalities are far too obvious to sustain an entire narrative. A compelling experience it may be, but Natural Born Killers sadly winds up saying more about its creator than the decade which spawned it.

One of the most widely overanalyzed titles in recent memory, Stone's film almost immediately spawned a special edition laserdisc which restored the unrated director's cut (purportedly with 150 shots trimmed from the abortive R-rated edition in theaters). Critics have picked apart virtually every aspect of the film, with producer Jane Hamsher even contributing a bitter, scathing behind-the-scenes book, Killer Instinct (following The Devil's Candy as the second literary pulverizing of a Warner Brothers production during the 1990s). Despite the basic lack of depth, the technical aspects alone make for fascinating study material, borne out in Trimark's DVD edition. Duplicating most of the Pioneer laserdisc supplements, the DVD omits the Nine Inch Nails song "Burn" from the film itself (and the accompanying video) for legal reasons but otherwise makes for an ideal showcase. The image quality is comparable to the Pioneer laser and Trimark VHS edition: colorful, sharp, and kind of grainy at times, due to the vagaries of mixing and matching formats. The extra footage mostly helps the film, particularly Jones' ultimate fate during the prison riot, but the real showstopper is almost an hour of deleted scenes. From Ashely Judd's notorious courtroom scene to Denis Leary's hilarious excised rant, this is good stuff all around and easily merits viewing as much as the final film itself. Best of all is Stone's alternate ending, which offers a much more appropriate finale to Mickey and Mallory's nightmarish journey. In a rare audio commentary, Stone delivers a personable and illuminating account of the film, focusing more on the highlights than its infamous trouble spots. Also included are a half hour documentary on the making of the film (mostly cast and crew interviews summarizing the action and character motivations), as well as a useless DVD promo passed off as a "trailer" (the real thing is nowhere to be found, presumably still in Warner's possession). Speaking of Warner, the studio reportedly shunted the director's cut of this film off to Trimark because they didn't want to handle unrated product (see the recent Eyes Wide Shut controversy as well), but they experienced no problems whatsoever with the graphic, unrated cut of True Romance (another Tarantino-penned road movie!) on laser and DVD. How's that for logic?

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