“Best” Oliver Stone film is a big fat question mark, and it is doomed to stay that way. How does one even judge an Oliver Stone film in 2015? Tightest narrative? Best characters? Highest quantity of subversive edits? Most provocative? That which, pardon my french, stirs the most shit? So much of Stone’s lineage is tied into his public opinion to the point where he may be the only living director (Lars Von Trier excepted) for whom “ability to mess things up” is a genuine metric with which to judge his films, regardless of whether they work when detached from their social impact. So much of Stone’s vision is fundamentally tied into kicking up some dust and maintaining his enfant terrible status that it may be the metric that most accurately captures who he is as a filmmaker. Conventional analysis may be a moot point; his films live and die on their own terms.
Even though Platoon, JFK, and Born on the Fourth of July may be Stone’s most cohesive, sharpest productions as far as conventional narrative goes, they lack the verve and madman-alone-in-a-room quality of his most characteristic slices of social anarchy. In what we do we compare his most “perfect” films, that is the ones which most succeed at accomplishing that which they set out to do without flaw, with his most audacious works where “perfection” is an anti-goal and live wire experimentation and sheer quantity of numbing techniques trump perfecting any one technique in and of itself. In the latter camp, no Oliver Stone film shines more brightly, for good or ill, than Natural Born Killers. It represents a director who, having achieved the heights of his popular success, decided to throw himself back at his audience with teeth sharpened and mouth wide open. It is not the best Oliver Stone film, but it is probably the Most Oliver Stone film, and for a director who is notable primarily for the way in which he is himself, that has to count for something.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make it good, itself a huge question often drowned out in the almost unsolvable debate over whether Natural Born Killers is “moral” or not. One thing is for sure: this is a dirty film. It feels like a secret let loose upon the world. More than any Stone film before or since it feels like a trick he pulled on the world and miraculously got away with. It feels like it shouldn’t exist. Stone has always been a provocateur, and at this point in his career he was pretty much able to acquire funding for anything he set his mind to, but he never actively sought to bait Hollywood producers before. Sure, his films had always attracted controversy, and JFK is a minor stylistic masterpiece with subversive, challenging filmmaking by the boatload that grandly challenges the Hollywood prestige pic paradigm. But it isn’t goddamn Natural Born Killers.
Of course, in order to address Natural Born Killers, we have to address the other central enigma of its existence: Quentin Tarantino, who by all rights afforded the original script for production until it was sliced and diced beyond repair to become what is in all honesty an Oliver Stone vehicle if ever there was one. This is not the much-vaunted from-for-the-fatal-loins product of two of the early ’90s brashest and most subversive minds. It is really more aptly described as “an idea by Quentin Tarantino that Oliver Stone made into a feature film”, although several broad and specific lines of latitude between Tarantino’s style and the finished film persist. Most notably, Stone has his eye on the nature of how film chooses to address the subject of violence not simply morally but visually, and everything about his film boils down to this particular fascination. Although Stone is far more abrasive about this fact than Tarantino has ever been.
A closer approximation, so close it can’t be inadvertent, is David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, and the comparisons extend far beyond the “lovers on the run toward the edge of their lives” narrative idea. Stone’s tale of lovers turned killers Micky (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) unfolds as part neon nightmare, part fever dream, all unhinged collage of turntable filmmaking. Harrelson and Lewis give something that is less well described as “performance” than it is “drunken stupor”, and this doesn’t even bring us to the doorstep of Robert Downey Jr. (as an egomaniac TV journalist who follows their trail for ratings) and especially Tommy Lee Jones, giving one of the most deranged caterwauls ever featured in a film of this renown. Clearly, they are all trapped in Stone’s effervescent necromancy, bringing the art of cinematic death to a sort of life never before seen in the art form. The sheer corpus of techniques in his wheelhouse is enormous: second-to-second shifts in film stock, color-coding, black-and-white footage interspersed without rhyme or reason, animated sequences, harsh lighting, and a number of demonic malformations of the screen so shot through with decay that we can’t even be sure he understands them under the conventional lexicon of film technique.
The major difference between Wild at Heart and Natural Born Killers, and a hefty portion of the reason, I think, why Wild at Heart won the Palme d’or and respectable cinephiles wouldn’t have anything to do with Natural Born Killers: for all its difficulty, Wild at Heart is a romantic, while Natural Born Killers is as nihilist as they come. While Lynch’ film is his great statement to film love and film history, Killers is unremittingly difficult and unrepentant in its startling cinematic attack on anything and everything that wanders before its eyes. Do any of these techniques amount to anything? In the conventional ways we understand theme the answer probably circles more closely to no than yes, but Stone’s anarchic chaos in a bottle is an affect all itself. It doesn’t mean anything, but that may be the most subversive secret of the whole feature. Meaning is something we impose on shots, or at least Stone seems to think so, and his interest here seems to be to court meaning at every turn and then contradict himself with rejection and difficulty.
It is absolutely as harsh and off-putting as anything Stone has yet made, and it doesn’t aspire to be anything different. It mocks the very idea of shot-by-shot storytelling and round narratives that inspire meaning and character growth. Technique is less deliberate than prismatic, not specific but vague and broad and randomized and cathartic in its own rampant way. The purpose, the theme, rather, is alienation and difficulty itself, to court expectation and defile it. Even Stone’s commentary on the media and violence is a ruse. He never says anything interesting about it, and the old “sledgehammer where a chisel could do” refrain doesn’t even begin to describe his intentionally broad handling of the material. It is an angry film that exists without purpose, inhabiting the nexus where good and bad are functionally useless descriptions. It isn’t quite Stone intentionally making a bad film, for it is far too well made to be mistaken for a film devoid of thought. Rather, it is thought designed to be thoughtless from the ground up.
Within, the whole “what does it say about violence” card that has hogged almost all of the commentary on the film over the years doesn’t even register. Natural Born Killers is a mess of a film without a perspective, and this lack of perspective is its perspective. It doesn’t glamorize its heroes, for it is too obviously ugly a motion picture to even hint at such an opinion. Nor can it really be said that it actively indicts them, or society at large, for it doesn’t hold its own ground long enough to really approximate an idea of critique in a formal sense. It is a critique of a film, but not of violence so much as it is a critique of film more generally and the cinematic language we know to be true. It is senseless and depraved because its attitude is to find senselessness as a sense itself, to find purpose in rearranging the way violence is depicted in film and the way images flow between each other. It doesn’t adopt a stance about violence because its stance is to provoke stances, to open up rather than to close off.
This isn’t moral or immoral, but amoral. More than any other film he’s yet made, it seems like the result of Stone being thoroughly unsatisfied with the idea of film as an art and dead set on replacing it with something more to his fancy. Whether this is the problem or the solution I cannot say. But then that is Oliver Stone for you, being so committed to his passionate fringe-dwelling lunacy that even he loses track of his film. It’s probably not good, and its excitement is matched at nearly every turn by its alienating distance, but boy is it unstable, entropic, and essential viewing.
Score: Natural Born Killers is a worthwhile experience and it should be seen by all, but it and “numerical” are not the closest of friends.