Natural Born Killers (1994)

What seemed subversive and important in 1994 feels silly and weightless today as I sit here, 25 years later. At one point — let’s say 2006, when Entertainment Weekly published their list of the most controversial films in history, it placed eighth. I call BS on any list that doesn’t list Salo and has Cannibal Holocaust at twenty.

The movie started as a screenplay written by Quentin Tarantino. But back then, it was about a married couple going on a killing spree, and the future director would sell it for $10,000 after failing to direct it himself for $500,000. That’s when Oliver Stone got it.

It’s obviously a Tarantino script, because Mickey Knox is named after Mickey Knox, who wrote the English dialogue for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. Scagnetti is also the name of Mr. Blonde’s probation officer in Reservoir Dogs.

Stone rewrote the script, keeping much of the dialogue but focusing on the killers instead of the media. In truth, so much changed that Tarantino was only credited with the story. Originally, the producers saw it as an action movie, but once the 24-hour news cycle kicked in with O.J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers and the L.A. riots, all bets were off.

Stone told Roger Ebert, “When Quentin wrote those two characters, Mickey and Mallory, they were originally based on, I guess, Bonnie and Clyde. But he basically wrote a different movie than the one I’ve made. He wrote a very nice, clever take-off on an AIP picture with a ’90’s wryness. It was mostly about the TV journalist, and Mickey and Mallory were just sort of crazy, stick figures. It was a clever script but he didn’t want to do it so he moved on to do Reservoir Dogs. I think he was hurt that I rewrote it so much. But I told him that I really can’t make what he, as a 26-year-old, would make as a first film. As a 47-year-old filmmaker, it doesn’t interest me. I want another level of socio-political comment and I want to deal with the whole justice system. I want to deal with the killers; where they come from, who their parents are. Quentin hasn’t seen the movie, so who knows what he’ll say?”

He didn’t have to wait all that long. Tarantino said, “I hated that fucking movie. If you like my stuff, don’t watch that movie.”

It only took 56 days to shoot Natural Born Killer but nearly a year to edit it. What’s left is a kinetic burst of energy that pretty much was what 1994 felt like.

We start with Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson, whose father once bragged from prison that he had killed JFK) and his wife Mallory (Juliette Lewis), who go from eating in a diner to murdering everyone inside it.

We then flashback by way of a sitcom of their lives, where Mallory living in a home with her sexually abusive father (Rodney Dangerfield, who himself was verbally abused by a mother who never loved him, who was born Jacob Rodney Cohen but would become Jack Roy and then give up on comedy, who was married twice to a woman who never loved or respected him before reinventing himself as Rodney Dangerfield while never truly finding happiness, who wrote all of his own material for this film, who is one of my truest heroes), absentee mother (the fabulous Edie McClurg, a great character actor who shows up in Carrie and Eating Raoul) and her brother Kevin (Stone’s son, Sean). Mickey breaks out of jail, kills her parents and they go on the road together.

Sure, there are some problems along the way, like Mickey assaulting other women, but soon the happy couple has claimed fifty-two lives and is being hunted by Detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), whose mother was killed by Charles Whitman when he was just a kid, and tabloid journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), whose show American Maniacs turns them into heroes.

Mickey and Mallory get lost in the desert and ingest mushrooms. Warren Red Cloud, a Native American mystic, senses a demon in Mickey and attempts to pull it from him, but the two end up killing him. It’s the first murder they regret and soon, they’ve been bitten by numerous snakes and are caught in a drugstore.

A year later, Mickey and Mallory are about to be transferred to a mental hospital when Waren Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) tells Scagnetti that he has one chance to kill them both during the transfer. Meanwhile, Gale is planning a live interview with Mickey after the Super Bowl. Of course, all hell breaks loose and nearly everyone dies, save our heroes. Or villains.

For as many people and things that ended up in the movie, tons ended up on the cutting room floor, including scenes with Ashley Judd, Denis Leary, Bret Hart and Peter and David Paul, who are The Barbarian Brothers (The Barbarians).

Tarantino hated the final version of the film until a chance meeting with Johnny Cash, who told him that he and June were fans of his and loved the movie. Plus, once his original screenplay was published, he felt a little better, despite the quote above. For what it’s worth, Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth both turned down the role of Wayne Gale because Tarantino would never have cast them in a movie ever again.

The film led to so-called copycat killings including Columbine. Then, Oliver Stone and Time Warner were sued by Patsy Byers, with the support of author and producer John Grisham.

How did that happen? In March 1995, eighteen-year-olds Sarah Edmondson and Benjamin Darras did acid and watched this movie, then were so inspired that they shot and paralyzed Byers and killed a cotton gin manager named William Savage who was a personal friend of Grisham.

Grisham publicly accused Oliver Stone of being irresponsible, saying that he should be responsible for the actions of those inspired by his films. He used the laws of product liability to go after the director. The trial went the whole way until 2002, when it was finally dismissed by the Louisiana Court of Appeal.

Before reviewing it for this week, I hadn’t watched this film in twenty some years. Hopefully, I can break that record before I see it again.

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