The forbidden allure of certain films has always held a seductive draw for me. I can remember Pulp Fiction coming out when I was young and being so enticed to watch such a very talked-about violent movie that when the closest thing to seeing it—buying the soundtrack on tape—came along, I jumped at the chance to use my allowance money to do so. Little did I know that the cassette would also include audio clips from the film. When my father put my new tape into the cassette deck of his pick-up, hearing Amanda Palmer scream about executing motherfuckers was a moment of true and real horror. But it also made me want to see the movie all the more.
Natural Born Killers—based on a story by the very same Quentin Tarantino—had that same allure. It looked both ultra-violent [ie.: forbidden] but also intriguingly good. Parts of it were filmed in black-and-white. And animated. It looked like an acid trip filtered through Woodstock '94. Watching it years ago, the absurd bite of it all packed a certain punch that left me floored by the insanity it contained. The performances were overdone, the pace was frenetic. But setting down to watch it now, I had to wonder—would it hold up?
The answer is….sort of. The story of a pair of star-crossed lovers freewheeling their way around America and murdering anyone foolish enough to get in their paths is nothing new. Movies such as The Honeymoon Killers, Badlands, and even The Frighteners featured this motif. Bonnie and Clyde also featured criminal lovers, but the difference between them and Mickey and Mallory is night and day. It’s the difference between being outsiders against an oppressive system [represented by banks] and outsiders against the growing insanity of society [represented by shock-jock driven television].
Both films portray the media as being a window towards hero worship for its criminals. The extent of news media and its hold on America is seen subtly in Bonnie and Clyde, but Oliver Stone make it his thesis in his film. Television is a dominant force throughout Natural Born Killers, as shown with particularly great dripping menace and sleaze by Robert Downey Jr.’s tabloid journalist Wayne Gale. Media in both films might drive the criminals into the conscious minds of society, but the media in Natural Born Killers goes further into driving both its killers and filmmaker. Mickey and Mallory are cartoon killers raised by television, and the stylistic choices Stone employs in the film are informed by television—music video coloration, a flashback filmed like a TV sitcom….by the time Natural Born Killers rolled around, the media had gone from an influence to the dominant factor ruling over a weary society ruled by 24-hour coverage of the latest in carnage and gore. The television set is not just backdrop in the film—it’s how we’re watching everything unfold.
Even the violence of Natural Born Killers is filtered through the eye of the television set, seen as something false and cartoonish—overly cinematic. The opening diner massacre follows the point of view of the murder weapon as it careens towards its victim. Seeing the warden’s head on a pike during the prison riot isn’t shocking—we’ve seen it all before in the horror movies we grew up on. The result is kinetic and disorientating, but it also suggests desensitization. Bonnie and Clyde, in contrast, provides its violence in that shocking, jarring final scene. Violence in Bonnie and Clyde is tragedy—in Natural Born Killers, the tragedy is how desensitized to the violence we have all become.
This showcases the main difference between the films—that Bonnie and Clyde finds its art in subtlety while Natural Born Killers is about as subtle as a sledgehammer-wielding bull in a china shop. It may also be what makes Bonnie and Clyde stand out as classic cinema and Natural Born Killers just kind of stand out—it’s a satire that sacrifices cleverness for an on-the-nose preaching of its themes. Yes, Oliver Stone—you don’t like news media and television. We get it. But then again….maybe his original 1994 audience just needed to “get it” more.
The power of both films comes in their similarities beyond that of their respective crime-committing duos. It’s that both films powerfully capture the dark shadows of the times they were filmed in. Bonnie and Clyde rail against the banks and authorities, embracing the spirit of the people through the rebellious lovers at its center. Natural Born Killers comes out of a time when everyone was focused on discussing the latest development in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, when America’s Most Wanted was scaring its public into being on the lookout for the criminals roaming the countryside, and not long after the Gulf War had been beamed into family television sets across every news channel in the country. The line between journalism and horror show was beginning to blur. In capturing the zeitgeist of the moment, Natural Born Killers then seems to be a definite success.
But we are even more desensitized now. Natural Born Killers is not shocking in 2017—it’s just more of the norm. But observing the rise of news media from Bonnie and Clyde to Natural Born Killers remains a frightening litmus test for the symptoms of its society. Perhaps the best way to observe and study a society is through the crimes they commit. The 2016 film Hell Or High Water does this as well, focusing on another bank-robbing duo—this time brothers. They too are outsiders. They too are shadows of an American myth—the cowboy outlaws. And they too are sympathetic because once again, the banks are the bad guys oppressing the underdogs of society. It all seems to revolve back. But that’s the thing about zeitgeists. Using films as mirrors can sometimes reveal this hidden aspect—that the more things change, the more they cycle around and come back just the same.