In 1994, a severely truncated version of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers was released to theaters nationwide, after a long and brutal production. It grossed about half its budget on opening weekend, and broke even in 2007. It was based on a story written by Quentin Tarantino, who was currently ablaze in Tinseltown thanks to Pulp Fiction. It starred former sitcom bartender Woody Harrelson, and Geoffrey Lewis’ daughter Juliette (the nymph in Scorcese’s Cape Fear remake), as mass-murdering marrieds Mickey and Mallory Knox.
I kinda fell in love with it.
A lot of people have. There’s a lot to love. Thankfully Oliver Stone recut the film for DVD, restoring the scenes the MPAA ordered removed for theatrical release. I tell you this as someone who has studied this film extensively; it was released in a broken form. There is at least one sequence that doesn’t make sense thanks to the cuts. So before you write the movie off completely, make sure you’ve seen the proper, complete version.
It’s been called the 8th most controversial film ever made (Entertainment Weekly), it’s about the boldest movie ever put out by a major studio, and it’s the guiltiest pleasure you could ask for.
1.THE SOUNDTRACK IS EXEMPLARY
The first thing you hear is the bone-deep voice of progressive-folk poet Leonard Cohen. The opening credits unfurl over five songs at once, including Patti Smith’s cathartic “Rock ‘N Roll Nigger”, and Duane Eddy’s “The Trembler”. L7’s “Shitlist” is used with precise appropriateness. It’s all choice, even “Ted Just Admit It” by Jane’s Addiction, and I can’t stand those fuckers. Notably, over the course of the film, the Cowboy Junkies’ “Sweet Jane” makes several appearances.
That’s because the soundtrack to Natural Born Killers is a mixtape made by producer Jane Hamsher.
Oliver Stone’s knowledge of rock ‘n roll begins and ends with the Doors, so young Jane threw in selections of her own, and she happened to have great taste. She’s the one who corralled Donita Sparks from L7, which is why you hear “Shitlist” in the opening diner scene.
Trent Reznor gets the producer credit on the soundtrack because it was on Interscope. He didn’t do shit. He was surprised when he first screened the film, and “A Warm Place” from The Downward Spiral rose up behind the obligatory Tarantino Mexican Standoff. You’re hearing a mixtape from one of the coolest producer women ever. Credit where due.
Your appreciation of Natural Born Killers and the obstacles overcome to deliver it will increase a thousand-fold if you read Hamsher’s book Killer Instinct, in which she details the film’s lunatic production. She’s hilarious, suicidally frank, and she doesn’t hold back against anyone, even Oliver Stone, at the time one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.
2.THE PERFORMANCES ARE TOPS
I’ve seen Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in dozens of other movies where they don’t turn in half the performance they do in NBK. Tommy Lee Jones is a hoot as the warden McCluskey; during a full-blown prison riot, featuring actual prisoners, milk drips from above onto Jones’ head, and he doesn’t break character. He didn’t know what it was. Could you keep your cool if that happened?
Former kid actor Balthazar Getty makes an appearance as a gas station attendant who performs cunnilingus so poorly on Lewis that she blows him away. Robert Downey Jr. is the sociopath reporter Wayne Gale, host of the extremely authentic TV show “American Maniacs”, and he chews an Aussie accent like salt water taffy. Mark Harmon plays the reenactment version of Woody Harrelson, and Dale Dye is the cop crying about his “bear claw”.
But the most memorable cast member is invariably…
3.RODNEY DANGERFIELD PLAYING AGAINST TYPE
Comedian Dangerfield appears as Mallory’s abusive, incestuous father Ed Wilson. Every line he delivers is equal parts hilarious and horrifying. While enjoying some Monday night wrestling on TV alone, he bellows:
“Well break his arm. What am I watchin’ here, two fuckin’ fags?!?”
Mallory’s home life pre-Mickey is portrayed in the form of a literal sitcom, called I Love Mallory; she even enters to applause from an unseen audience. The Wilson family sits down to dinner, and Ed lifts a boot out of the stew prepared by wife Edie McClurg. Gales of laughter from the “audience”.
“Fuckin’ food like this, ya pray AFTER ya eat!”
Underage Mallory is seduced by Mickey, who delivers 50 pounds of beef to the Wilson home in a leaking paper bag. Ed isn’t allowed to eat meat, so Mom goes off to scold him, and Mickey lays on the charm, luring Mallory away within seconds. Ed runs to the window to see Mickey’s 1970 Challenger 383 Magnum RT convertible speeding off with his daughter. In frustration, he exclaims:
“Oh-ohh-ohh, that meat-man cocksucker- I broke her in and he grabbed her!”
When Mallory tells Mickey about her father’s abuses, he returns to the Wilson home to eliminate him. As Looney Tunes music spins wildly in the background, Ed shrugs off a couple hits in the face from Mickey’s tire iron, and offers this final bon mot:
“Alright fuck-face. Now I’m gonna take your eye out and show it to you.”
Every bit of it is uniquely disturbing. Ed Wilson meets his end in the aquarium, and the pensive way he gazes at his fish as he dies is haunting.
Of course, the couple then proceeds to burn Mom alive in bed, but let me remind you; this is a film about mass murdering psychopaths who literally kill everyone who annoys them or gets in their way. The media then makes them superstars, which is exactly what tends to happen in reality. At no point are Harrelson or Lewis likable. The world falls in love with them by transferring their personal frustrations onto them, and so reveals its darker side. Meanwhile, Mickey and Mallory continue to kill people and be psychotic. You can liken more current events to NBK now than you could in 1994.
4.DON MURPHY ALSO PRODUCED
Jane Hamsher was partnered with her cohort from USC, Don Murphy. Murphy is a man from whom I have gargantuan admiration. Briefly:
- Tarantino hated NBK and turned on it late in production. At this moment, a lump formed in Jane Hamsher’s breast, and Don Murphy remarked “I would openly celebrate Quentin Tarantino’s death” (for which Tarantino later assaulted him).
- Don Murphy was one of the producers of 2007’s Transformers. Late in that film’s production, an image of primary villain Megatron leaked, provoking unanimous negative fan reaction. Murphy moved heaven and earth to have the design changed, and clearly it worked; the third movie in which Megatron appeared grossed over a billion dollars.
Murphy appears as an ill-fated prison guard when Mickey Knox makes his escape. Like Hamsher, he put up with a holocaust of shit to get NBK made. Don is good people.
5.THE DRUG ZONE SCENE
There are several incredible set pieces in NBK, but the first major one is the Drug Zone. Oliver Stone has to have a Native American in every movie, so he said in 1993, and Oglala Lakota activist Russell Means ably fills the role, although he’s not listed on IMDb. Means died, or more properly “walked on”, in 2012, and I wouldn’t expect him to have an agent handling his IMDb account.
Anyway, Means is a rattlesnake rancher who takes in Mickey and Mallory out of kindness. There are great moments in this scene, like the snake joke, and the words “too much tv” projected on the couple’s bodies as they enter the teepee. Mickey has a dream about his father’s suicide and his abused mother, and shoots the old Indian in his sleep. This is a real turning point; Mallory hates Mickey for killing the Indian, Mickey is hysterical, and the two of them are bitten dozens of times by angry rattlers. Near death, they end up at the Drug Zone, where the nation’s entire supply of green light bulbs is kept.
The score at the start of the scene is Peter Gabriel’s, reused from the film Birdy. (Parts of Gabriel’s Passion are also utilized later.) The camera work is utterly spellbinding. Here, an anime version of Mickey and Mallory intermittently flashes, like a bad hallucination. A cartoon Mallory bites off Mickey’s head. The shelves of the drugstore stretch into infinity. And our two lead actors are really good at playing poisoned. Harrelson in particular looks like an actual demon.
Inevitably, a bloodbath erupts, allowing Mallory to be apprehended by amoral detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore, in his best role other than Saving Private Ryan, with a typically appalling Tarantino name). It’s impossible not to love Juliette Lewis here, sick out of her mind, screaming “KILL ‘EM ALL!” as Scagnetti threatens to slice her tits off with a switchblade. Before he’s captured by a legion of furious cops with tasers, Mickey offers this retort:
“That’s okay, we can get ‘er some o’ them silicone implants!”
The Drug Zone sequence is the tightest in the film. It’s a marvel to behold.
6.TOM SIZEMORE ON 10
Tom Sizemore had a bad few years with the law and Heidi Fleiss. He made a couple of pornos. Here’s the thing, I don’t know Sizemore, but I’ve known guys like him as friends. To me, he seems like someone who’s worked as hard as they can at something, and had it slip through their fingers because of a personal failing. You can’t judge people like that any harsher than they judge themselves. They’re the ones you try to understand and reach out to, rather than condemn. They live on borrowed time.
Sizemore puts everything into Scagnetti. He holds nothing back in his portrayal of the most loathsome cop imaginable. Early in the film, he strangles a sweet female escort who was nice enough to ride him topless. He’s a monster waiting for an excuse to kill people. He’s insane enough to get into a cell alone with Mallory Knox, and she breaks his nose.
Juliette Lewis broke Tom Sizemore’s nose.
She actually did. That’s real anger in Sizemore’s reaction, and real blood in the above shot.
7.MALLORY KNOX HERSELF
I will not admit how many girls I have dated since 1994 that reminded me of Mallory Knox. I’ll say this: too many.
Juliette Lewis’ performance is masterful, particularly taking into account her young age. She’s 98 pounds, she kicks men to death that are three times her size, and it’s completely believable. She achieves film immortality in six words:
“HOW SEXY AM I NOW, FUCKER?”
As I mentioned, she forces Balthazar Getty to go down on her, when she cheats on Mickey out of anger. His lousy paper-and-comb act costs him his life (plus he recognized her), and as she stomps off into the darkness, she screams:
“THAT’S THE WORST FUCKIN’ HEAD I EVER GOT! NEXT TIME DON’T BE SO FUCKIN’ EAGER!”
Mallory’s lines can only be transcribed in ALL CAPS. That is the way she talks. This is the best thing Juliette Lewis has ever done. The NBK soundtrack is one of the rare instances where I didn’t mind dialogue clips in-between the music. Her stuff is that hot.
Also, it’s endearing how she lectures people after killing them.
8.ROBERT DOWNEY JR. AS WAYNE GALE
Alongside James Woods in The Boost, Wayne Gale is the cokehead to beat in late 20th century movies. Downey and Tommy Lee Jones spend the second half of the film biting everything in sight. They’re better comic book characters here than they are in actual comic book movies. Downey says the words “live interview with Wayne Gale” with the malevolence of a mustache-twirling super-villain. Wayne Gale is beholden to technology; nosehair trimmers, cellular phone, microphone; and Downey does amazing work with props. He’s even funnier than the lead killers.
Much of the best bits of business involve Downey:
- Mallory shoots a huge hole in Wayne Gale’s hand, and the camera shoots the following action through the hole.
- Gale is a scumbag, and Downey relishes every minute of it. He tenderly hugs an inmate when he learns his crime was murder. He enjoys a lot of great back-and-forth with mass murderers, whom he exploits for ratings. It’s a portrayal on par with 70s classics like Network.
If you saw the 1994 theatrical release of NBK, you saw Wayne Gale suddenly go insane during the escape from the prison. This is a common criticism; Downey all of the sudden “goes nuts”.
This is a casualty of bringing the rating down to R from NC-17. If you see the “unrated” version, you understand what happened. The R version cuts it to pieces.
As the prison riot gets worse, the “green team” is dispatched to quell it. You can see them killing inmates in brief shots, and dropping tear gas. Anyway, initially, the caravan of escapees included Wayne Gale’s remaining crew; the ones who weren’t slaughtered when Mickey took over the interview. For example, Gale’s right hand gal, a woman born without a tongue who uncannily resembled Rachel Maddow, was still in tow, hale and hardy.
Well, the “green team” turned a corner and opened fire on her, and the last of the American Maniacs staff. The sight of faceless authoritarians killing his innocent assistant is too much for Wayne Gale, and he goes ’round the bend, spraying the green team with bullets. That’s why he “goes nuts”, and justifies becoming an actual murderer. That’s why Mickey takes his gun and tells him he’s “not centered”. And it certainly keeps audience sympathy on Downey’s side, even as he’s killing guards.
9.THE SOUNDS OF A FULL-SCALE PRISON RIOT
Even though the rap music played over the riot was inserted by Interscope to promote their artists, it fits like a glove. Dr. Dre’s “The Day the Niggaz Took Over” was barely a year old; I heard it here before I heard it on The Chronic. The classic Specials tune “Ghost Town” (aka “Too Much Fighting On The Dance Floor”) floats through. You even hear a few seconds of shredding from Lard’s “Forkboy”. But the finest addition is another crossover from Peter Gabriel; Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Khan’s vocals percolate above the fray like furious spirits. It’s one part of the movie that undeniably clicks. If Khan’s voice sounds familiar to you, that’s because you heard it at the end of Peter Gabriel’s hit “In Your Eyes”. He also performed on Passion, and his nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan sang in the same style on the soundtrack to Mel Gibson’s masterpiece* Apocalypto.
*Yes I’m serious. See it.
The soft piano from Nine Inch Nails’ “Something I Can Never Have” drifts in and out like a specter. The film’s audio is deceptively chaotic, mimicking the effect of “channel-surfing”. This echoes the erratic headspace of the protagonists, and for the horror of the prison riot, it’s perfect accompaniment.
10.WONDERFULLY TERRIBLE DELETED SCENES
That paperback at the start of this article, that you should envy me for owning? Well.
In the 80s and early 90s, rotten.com did not yet exist. If, for some fucked-up reason, you wanted to know the lurid details of a famous murder or massacre, you went to the True Crime section of the bookstore. That’s where dozens of trashy little paperbacks were, complete with a middle section of crime scene photos that would be unprintable in color. I had one on Charles Manson, Danny Rollings (The Gainesville Ripper), and Jack the Ripper, to name a few. I got rid of them all because I felt like a complete sicko, and lo and behold, women would actually visit my apartment after I did.
Anyway, Jane Hamsher and John August wrote a paperback just like them about Mickey and Mallory. It’s authentic enough that people invariably ask if the Knoxes were real people after I show it to them. The writing is terse and sordid, and there’s a black-and-white photo section in the middle, just like the real deal. That’s where I learned that Wayne Gale’s assistant was born with no tongue. And instead of simply transcribing what you see in the film, the authors provided detailed accounts of the deleted scenes.
In one example, Ashley Judd plays Grace Mulberry, lone survivor of the Knox’ “Slumber Party Massacre”, in a courtroom scene where Mickey represents himself. It’s ludicrous and silly, especially when Harrelson stabs Judd in the chest with a pencil, but combined with the book’s transcripts, it takes on a weird truthfulness. You can almost believe this insane shit actually happened.
Also on the cutting room floor are the Hun Brothers, twin bodybuilders whose resolve was reinvigorated following the removal of their legs with a chainsaw by Mickey. Stone admits in an interview that he couldn’t get the Barbarian Brothers to act well enough to be the Huns. But again, something about their amateurish delivery mixed with the “written transcript” of Wayne Gale’s interview strikes a unique chord.
Denis Leary, riding high on Louis CK’s jokes, turns in a typically grating monologue that was a spoof of ads he was in at the time. I don’t recall or care what they were for. Thankfully no part of it appears in either the final film or the paperback.
There’s also an alternate ending, if you simply can’t stand the idea that Mickey and Mallory get away scot free in the end. Owen Traft (Arliss Howard), the “guardian angel” who helps the Knoxes escape Batongaville, blasts them with a shotgun in a van. It makes sense, as Oliver Stone explains; if Mickey and Mallory were to be taken out, it wouldn’t mean anything unless it was by one of their own. And Owen Traft is a really sick fuck.
I can’t imagine a major studio taking a chance like Natural Born Killers today. The 1990s were the last gasp for this kind of thing. It’s a shame, but it makes me appreciate NBK all the more.
Oh yeah, one last thing- Pruitt Taylor Vince is an actor who was told he’d never make it because of his wiggly-eye birth defect. Vince plays the deputy warden in NBK, and he gets considerable screen time, wiggly eye and all. It looks cool as shit.