In the early 1990s, power ballads touted by bands with big, flammable hair were beginning to lose their currency and grunge hastened its demise.
But music wasn’t the only thing undergoing a metamorphosis; the alternative comedy movement that bubbled underground during the 1980s finally reared its head; one-liners were out and the energised, socially-conscious style of Bill Hicks turned him into a cult figure. Shows like The Simpsons, Beavis And Butt-head, The Kids in the Hall and much of MTV appeared to delight in destroying the stereotypes of traditional sit-coms, sketch and chat shows. It’s easy to look back with cynicism now, but those days felt like a brave new dawn.
Even the high gloss excess of Hollywood wasn’t immune from the rise of alternative culture. Directors such as Kevin Smith (Clerks), Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed And Confused) thrived during the first half of the decade, shooting low budget yet eminently quotable movies that captured the zeitgeist.
Quentin Tarantino became the most talked-about director following the release of his self-penned 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs and its even more successful follow-up, Pulp Fiction, two years later.
Despite masterminding two classic films, it could be argued that Tarantino’s definitive work was a script that he sold in order to help finance his debut film. Natural Born Killers – later adapted and directed by Oliver Stone – remains as relevant, shocking, unique and brutally hard to watch 28 years on.
Inspired by the likes of bank-robbing couple Bonnie and Clyde and the hyper-violence of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 classic A Clockwork Orange, Tarantino wrote a script about Mickey and Mallory Knox, two lovers who embark on a killing spree across New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada.
After Tarantino failed to raise the $500,000 needed to produce the film himself, he sold his work for $10,000. The script, now the property of Warner Bros., found its way onto the desk of Platoon and JFK director Oliver Stone. Impressed with the premise of the movie, Stone saw Natural Born Killers as a straight-ahead action film, something, he said, “Arnold Schwarzenegger would be proud of.”
As Stone and his associates David Veloz and Richard Rutowski began rewrites of the script, they couldn’t help but be affected by the endless images of chaos and violence broadcast on American television at the time: the footage of Rodney King being beaten by police which led to the Los Angeles riots of 1992, the O.J. Simpson murder trial (he was later acquitted), the FBI’s televised handling of the Waco siege, and even the media surrounding Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding’s attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan all helped to shape Stone’s vision for his adaptation of Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers script.
Stone was both shocked and disgusted by the media’s coverage of these events and believed that they’d both exploited and perverted the course of each incident in the pursuit of ratings. As such, the tone and purpose of the movie changed dramatically to what he claimed was a “viscous, cold-hearted farce on the media.”
Due to its preoccupation with the media machine, much of the movie leans on many of the tropes and stylistic similarities of popular culture. The bizarre, stylised tableaus and fast-paced energy of prime MTV was clearly a big influence, as were the brash, bold, multi-coloured, sensory overloads used in TV ads from that time. There were nods to violent B-movies, and he employed the use of shaky, hand-held cameras which informed the reality show TV show Cops and footage on the growing number of rolling news channels.
Yet the most shocking scene is where Juliette Lewis’ Mallory is seen at home with her father in a parody of 1950’s style sit-coms, featuring a brilliantly grotesque turn by legendary US comedian Rodney Dangerfield. As Dangerfield abuses, insults and threatens Mallory, the use of a clap track and canned laughter horrifically juxtapose the violence onscreen. It’s one of many tricks that Stone uses throughout the film to unnerve, confuse and shake his audience, with Natural Born Killers superbly prodding and antagonising the channel-hopping, detached and emotionally desensitised audience he believed would watch his film.
Natural Born Killers’ casting is superb across the board. Woody Harrelson, then known as the naive barman Woody in Cheers, was utterly unrecognisable as Mickey and brought a previously unseen, unhinged menace to his character. Lewis was already seen as something of an enigma after her role in the 1991 remake of Cape Fear, but amplifies the unpredictable yet childlike danger present in Mallory. Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr, Tom Sizemore and Tommy Lee Jones all appear to have entered a scenery-chewing competition in the best possible way during their memorable supporting roles.
As if the movie wasn’t already dripping in 90s cred, Stone added a cherry on top when he asked Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor to produce the soundtrack to the film. Reznor watched the finished piece 50 times to get into the correct headspace and suggested a collage of previously released music would be the way forward, before curating a set that included the likes of L7, Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg, Patti Smith, Lard and his own band.
It proved to be a masterstroke. The curated music underpins the demented nature of the film; one minute you’re getting aurally battered by Lard’s Forkboy, then soothed by Patsy Cline’s Back in Baby's Arms. The film was already perfect for the frustrated 90s generation, but the soundtrack made that link undeniable. It jumped into the Billboard Top 20 and went on to sell half a million copies in the US alone.
Even with four minutes of cuts made to Stone’s original edit to secure an ‘R’ rating in America, the film courted much controversy upon its release and was faced with protests by moral arbiters.
Reviews were mixed. The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson said the movie “doesn’t make it as a social criticism” and instead referred to it as “bloody, pulpy, excess”, while Janet Maslin of The New York Times criticised the film for being “enamoured of their [Mickey and Mallory's] exhilarating freedom”.
Tarantino himself disowned it, saying, “I hated that fucking movie”.
The film was banned outright in Ireland and released in the UK in February 1995 after a delay caused by so-called “copycat killers” in the US and France, the highest profile of which was the case of two teens who, the night after watching the movie alone, travelled between Mississippi and Louisiana, stopping to shoot two people, killing one and leaving the other paraplegic. Over a dozen crimes have been linked to the movie since.
Over the years, our access to such violence has been even easier to obtain, and so the criticisms that Natural Born Killers addressed almost three decades ago have become even more prophetic, as society's obsession with violence remains, now with added noise from social media.
Since its release, the movie has garnered a cult following more understanding of Stone’s intentions. It felt forward-thinking, groundbreaking and supremely dangerous, and three decades later, it carries the same impact. Regardless of when you first experienced it, Natural Born Killers remains one of cinema’s most enduring and visceral pieces.