Throwback Thursday: Natural Born Killers (1994)

Above: Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson in Oliver Stone's 'Natural Born Killers'
Above: Juliette Lewis and Woody Harrelson in Oliver Stone's 'Natural Born Killers'

What: Natural Born Killers

When: 1994

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones

Reason for the throwback: It was 20 years ago this week that Mickey and Mallory Knox were unleashed on the world and looking back at some of the elements the dark, violent, over-the-top film portrayed and commented on, it’s scary to see that what was offered up as an exaggerated version of where we’re headed has become not to far from where we’re at right now.

While there aren’t camera crews following around spree killers, tabloid television that adds fuel to the hysteria and drama have become de rigueur and that is scary. But this isn’t about where we’re at now — it’s about this wild movie that became a controversial lightning rod, changed the way we looked at Woody from Cheers and fed into the cult of Quentin Tarantino. It also became the nickname of one of my favourite figthers (and genuine good dude) Carlos Condit, so there is that too.

Tarantino wrote the original script and ended up with a “Story by” credit after Stone brought in another team to re-write things, but his flourishes can still be recognized instantly, the same way Stone’s standard elements are evident as well. As much as it was only a partial partnering between these two cinematic icons, it produced a riveting movie that wouldn’t have been as compelling and interesting without their individual touches.

And it was all kinds of compelling and interesting.

Roger Ebert suggested you had to see Natural Born Killers at least twice, “The first time is for the visceral experience, the second time is for the meaning,” and that’s as perfect an assessment as possible, as the raw violence is all you can take in on first viewing. But once you go back, there is a lot more here than just killing, even though that was all people talked about at the time of this film’s release, leading to Entertainment Weekly naming it the 8th most controversial movie of all-time.

A couple things that stood out for me back when I first saw this film that remain true and memorable to this day:

— This was Harrelson’s big post-Cheers part and it was at the complete other end of the spectrum from dimwitted barkeep Woody Boyd. He’s gone on to become a terrific actor and accomplish far more than you would have expected given his limited role behind the bar with Sam Malone, but this, for me, is still in the Top 5.

— Juliette Lewis remains an underrated, under-used talent, in part because she opted to move to music for a while. Nonetheless, she’s equal parts captivating and creepy in this flick.

NBK came around before RDJ fell into his “mugshot years,” which means it really pre-dates the current “We Love RDJ!” era we’re in now. Regardless of the chronology, his insane talent is apparent as he turns his character, a Nancy Grace-type tabloid journalist named Wayne Gale who turns Mickey and Mallory into stars on his show, American Maniacs.

NBK made you think about how we cover some of the grim and harsh elements of life, turning serial killers into pseudo-celebrities, but it seemed over the top and like a pumped up version of the future courtesy of a historically controversial director… and then the O.J. Simpson murder trial happened, North American became transfixed on the details and deliberations and here we are, 20 years later, getting scary close to where this movie suggested we were headed.

If you’re looking for something to watch this weekend, why not go on a crazy journey with Mickey, Mallory and this chaotic film that turned 20 this week.

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte is a freelance journalist based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, where he lives with his wife and dog. In addition to his work here, he writes about sports for Complex Canada and covers the UFC for various outlets. His mom also still tells him what to do on a regular basis, even though he’s nearly 40. He tweets from @spencerkyte.

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