Natural Born Killers (1994)
by Steve Habrat
Leave it to Oliver Stone to tackle an issue like the American public’s fascination with serial killers, blood, sex, guts, and all out mayhem. Natural Born Killers is without question one of the most controversial films ever made, a psychedelic road trip into Hell that boasts hallucinatory images, shotgun wielding satire, and a blood drenched riot as a finale that leaves the sane viewer with their mouth on the floor. Natural Born Killers is notorious for inspiring a long list of copycat murders in the wake of its 1994 release including the shooting of William Savage and Patsy Byers, the Heath High School shooting, the Columbine High School massacre, and the Richardson Family Murders. Natural Born Killers deals with the morbid intrigue we have with cold-blooded killers and how the media glamorizes and glorifies their actions. The film touches on all the major figures in death including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Whitman, and David Koresh, to name a few. Through all the controversy, director Stone has some thought provoking things to say and we can’t help but feel ashamed in ourselves for how we hang on the violence projected into our homes via the nightly news. We, as a society, were guilty this past summer when we hung on every second of the Casey Anthony trial and now, we are guilty of it again with the recent Chardon, Ohio school shooting, where news cameras were onsite to catch every drop of blood and every tear from those affected. We still haven’t learned from the message Natural Born Killers tried to deliver to us.
Natural Born Killers follows the horrific killing spree of Mickey (Played by Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Played by Juliette Lewis) Knox, two bloodthirsty individuals who have been twisted and mutated into heroes by the media for the carnage they leave in their wake. The film hops around and shows us glimpses into their troubled pasts, the pursuit of a Detective Jack Scagnetti (Played by Tom Sizemore) who has a few secrets of his own, Mickey’s Manson-esque interview with self-centered Australian tabloid journalist Wayne Gale (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), and their stay at a prison run by Warden Dwight McClusky (Played by Tommy Lee Jones). After a year stay at the prison, Mickey and Mallory are to be moved to a mental institution after being deemed insane, but the Warden, Gayle, and Detective Scagnetti all have plans of their own for the deadly duo.
You can’t evaluate Natural Born Killers without discussing the hyperactive style and array of colors Stone bathes the film in. He shoots with multiple types of film including Super 8, 16mm, black and white, animation, and video, the film flipping from one style to another with frantic randomness. Stone also adds heaping amounts of stock footage including footage of the 1993 siege on the Branch Dravidians, the Nazis, and the Charles Whitman shootings. In addition, Stone also shows us Mallory’s disturbing upbringing at the hands of her abusive father and cowardly mother. Stone presents this to the viewer as a 1950’s sitcom, adding laugh tracks and upbeat music, suggesting that we sensationalize the past of criminals and use their pasts as entertainment. Stone further suggests that we sensationalize violence every single day and use it as a form of entertainment. Even though the film deals with gruesome topics and we should be appalled by it, we keep watching and easily digesting it because he molds it into shameless entertainment. Even if you hate the film and find yourself mortified by it, you can’t say that you weren’t entertained while watching it.
The characters of Mickey and Mallory are contorted into a modern Bonnie and Clyde with a sprinkling of Charles Whitman and Charles Manson. They relish in their hellish fame and joyfully tell their fans “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” as they are led into court. Stone makes them charismatic despite their urges to kill and maim. They use theatrics in the massacres, usually leaving one person alive to tell the tale of Mickey and Mallory. Mickey is a brewing storm of fury that is bottled up and when provoked, slowly uncorks and spews forth with a wrath that will make your head spin. Mallory isn’t as discreet (I use that term loosely here) as Mickey, she unhinges at the smallest little things. But in a sick way, we root for Mickey and Mallory, who actually just want to be left to themselves by the end. Their love for each other trumps their murderous impulses. Stone purposely wants us to root for them, forcing us to listen in on their warped viewpoints Mickey explains to Gale. He also paints them as tragic victims by their troubled pasts, another action by the exploitative media. But Stone uses Gayle to show us how infectious the mental sickness is, the virus spread with a camera and microphone. Mickey sparks a gruesome riot and awakens a killer in Gayle, who begins to enjoy the murder and mayhem. Stone seems to be foretelling the idea of individuals who find inspiration in these monsters.
Natural Born Killers doesn’t pour much hope in the ones who are sworn to protect us. They use murders and psychos for their own personal fame and gain. Wayne Gayle uses them for reputation, Scagnetti uses them for vengeance, and McClusky uses them for his career. In the end, we have to wonder if any of the individuals out there really care about our safety or well-being. These twisted people realize that they can capitalize on death. By the finale, Mickey and Mallory are the rebellion to these individuals–bring down a flurry of bullets with an army of inmates tearing through the prison. Natural Born Killers says that those who claim to protect and serve are really no better than the ones they are trying to capture and put behind bars, something that the real life individuals who are guilty of this crime should be ashamed of.
Natural Born Killers is a film that should be approached with caution, a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. As I have pointed out, many miss the intellectual message of the film and see it as a trippy view into how murder can make you famous. How murder will make the world remember your name, a message that is formed by a weak, delusional mind. For the viewer who wants a thought provoking experience, I encourage you to see Natural Born Killers, a film that holds a slot in my top twenty films of all time. I have always found myself fascinated by how the evening news projects violence into our homes on daily basis. Think of how no one stopped disgraced politician Budd Dwyer as he pulled out a gun and blew his head off on live television, on a snow day when young children were able to see it. If you have seen the footage, you know that the camera kept rolling and the cameraman even zooms in on the bloody mess, making sure we see every minute detail and every smudge of gore. Then it was rerun for everyone to see, presented as a spectacle of a desperate man with no other option. Think 0f how the news covered the events of Waco, how we hang on the interviews with the deranged and manipulative Charles Manson, or our round the clock coverage of any given school shooting. We are the ones who are guilty of making these monsters heroes. We are the ones who sensationalize death and tragedy, refusing to try to intervene or turn away from it. We haven’t learned from our mistakes, that I say with firm confidence. Natural Born Killers is as relevant now as ever, morphing the film to a polarizing classic.
Natural Born Killers is now available of Blu-ray and DVD.
Red State (2011)
by Steve Habrat
After last year’s buddy cop debacle Cop Out, pudgy funny-man director Kevin Smith needed a hit. Cop Out boasted Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, both who are able to draw a fairly large crowd to fill seats in the local theater, and ended up tanking and being largely forgotten soon after it’s release. Rather than enlisting more big actors and trying to make another blockbuster comedy, Smith scales back with Red State, a new horror/thriller that you, the viewer, will feel in the morning, long after you have seen it. Yes, this is the same guy who made Clerks, Dogma, Jersey Girl, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Red State is a hell of a departure from Smith’s other projects, but it also turns out to be one of his best movies, certainly scaring the hell out of you. With Dogma, Smith made clear he has an interest in the subject of religion, and with Red State, he launches a full on assault on radically religious figures, ultra-conservatism, and strangely, masculinity. This film is also evocative of the stock footage of such events as Waco, Texas, where a sinister ultra-religious cult lead by David Koresh engaged in a deadly firefight with FBI officials in 1993. The film brushes against the topic of terrorism as well, pitting Red State in the real realm of horror. The monsters here could be living down the street from you.
Red State focuses on Middle America high school students Travis (Played by Michael Angarano), Jared (Played by Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Played by Nicholas Braun), who plot to answer a sex invitation that Jared received in an online sex chat room. They pile into Travis’ car that very evening and set out to find the 39-year-old Sarah (Played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo), who promises the boys that they will get physical after they have a couple of beers. Turns out, the beers she provides the eager lads are spiked, drugging the teens. Jared soon awakens to find himself at the Five Points Church, which is lead by a radical preacher Abin Cooper (Played by Michael Parks), a fire-and-brimstone preacher who spews his message of hate against homosexuals. The church is also holding a homosexual man they lured in a through a gay chat room. They soon execute the poor man who has been saran wrapped to a cross. After he dies, the man is cut down and several of Cooper’s men dump his body into a cellar where we discover Travis and Billy Ray are bound together. The boys come to the realization that Cooper aims to execute them for their devilish lust. After a string of mishaps and the discovery of military grade weaponry, the local Sheriff Wynan (Played by Stephen Root) enlists the help of ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (Played by John Goodman) to set up a raid on Cooper’s church compound. As the standoff between the agents and Cooper’s congregation escalates and Keenan’s peaceful negotiations fail, the boys are caught with Sarah’s virgin daughter Cheyenne (Played by Kerry Bisché) in the middle of the conflict. Cheyenne begs the boys to help them hide the younger children, who are also hidden in the compound.
Red State does not mince words and it certainly is not cunning about its attacks. It goes right for the throat and I say good for Smith for following through. He makes us absolutely loath the members of the Five Points Church, making me cheer every time an ATF agent picked off one of the gun-toting psychos. This leads to my recognition of the way Smith mounts tension within the film and his expertise in shooting action sequences. He turns a chase scene through the compound into a ferocious and erratic kick to the head. You will be swallowed up by desperation. He can also stage a gunfight, avoiding confusion that some filmmakers fall victim to when they stage a gunfight. Praise should also go to the excellent editing, which is frantic but clear. This is where the film benefits from its smaller budget, as I can’t imagine this film was made for a huge sum of cash.
Smith enlists a handful of smaller actors along with some veterans, all who shine through the buckets of blood, gore, and gun smoke. Melissa Leo plays a horrifically loyal daughter to the heinous Cooper. While sniping ATF agents, he glances over at his machine gun wielding daughter and asks her if she will get him a glass of sweet tea. She proudly dashes off to quench his thirst. Leo excels at playing wicked and domineering, as she yanks and scolds her daughter Cheyenne for defying God. She does the phony hypnotic prayer, which all fanatical Christians in the south are so found of and she does it exceptionally well. Leo is all flaying arms to Christ, shouting “Praise Jesus” as Cooper fear mongers and promotes his message of destruction. Michael Parks is the embodiment of the devil as Cooper, who encourages his family members to march out and take the lives of innocent human beings. Goodman plays a good guy facing some serious moral dilemmas. Goodman conveys genuine horror over the events that play out right before his eyes and he is helpless to stop them. The three boys, Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray are all out to prove their masculinity and enter manhood. They take a backseat to Leo, Goodman, and Parks, but they still hold their own in the film.
Red State has many points to make on its agenda. It argues that under all of the fear mongering preaching made by radicals in Middle America (or anywhere in America, for that matter) has the underlying message of violence. Near the beginning of the film, Cooper’s congregation protests the funeral of a homosexual boy who was found dead in a dumpster behind a gay club. It asks if there is any decency in this world anymore. Would God approve of all this violence? He is supposed to be a peaceful God after all. Red State asks questions about masculinity, particularly the drive in young men to prove themselves sexually. It makes points about ultra-conservatism, sometimes with the role of women within a family. The scene where Cooper asks his daughter to get him some sweet tea would spark some thoughtful conversation in a Women’s Study course. There were moments in the film that were evocative of the documentary Jesus Camp, where radical preacher Becky Fisher discusses the “army of God”. The members of Cooper’s congregation certainly see themselves that way, even if they are fictional creations. And what about the issues of freedom of sexuality? And what gives us the right as human beings to judge other human beings? Red State points out that violence is not the way to solve any of these issues, as the violence will consume the innocent caught in the middle.
The portrait that Smith paints with Red State is scary because it has happened before and we can be certain it will happen again. These are monsters that exist and walk among us brainwashing our children and spewing vitriol to anyone who will stop and listen. Red State is not for all, mostly because of its relentless violence. Yet Red State is articulate and should be seen by those who are open minded. I’d be curious to hear the opinions of those who devout themselves to any certain religion or situate themselves in conservative beliefs. Sitting on the sidelines here, I found the film to be a gut punch that is softened only by it’s silly turn at the end. Smith turns the last fifteen minutes of the film into a comedy routine where the characters spout off with dialogue that would be at home in any of his comedies I have listed above. It saves itself again in the final thirty seconds. For all the intellectuals out there, Red State scares with reality. For movie lovers, Red State is a must-see for a left of center project from Kevin Smith. For me, Red State has left me reeling, swirling with emotions. I’ve felt angry, dismayed, and broken by it. I also don’t view any of these emotions as negative towards the film itself. Praise Red State!
Red State is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and in the Instant Queue on Netflix.